Nothing happened for nearly a week, except Drusilla got a prescription for anti-anxiety medicine as well as Valium. Her days were filled with answering condolence cards and calls, dealing with the necessary business of death, and finalizing her own plans for an auction. To that end, she chose one afternoon to check Ann’s roof-top studio, needing to collect materials for appraisal by the auctioneer’s specialists. First, though, she had to attend the reading of Ann’s will at John Devon’s office. He sent a car and driver for her, and arranged for a luncheon at her favorite Italian restaurant afterwards.
There were no surprises in the will, apart from a substantial bequest to fund a scholarship at the city’s premier art school. True to Drusilla’s expectations, Ann had not had the time (or perhaps the inclination) to change her will in anyone else’s favor. Drusilla Neill inherited it all, leaving her a very wealthy woman.
Returning to the Crowe Building, Drusilla used her key-card in the elevator and went up to the penthouse level. The little square vestibule looked the same as always—black and red tiles on the floor, the walls covered with a rendering of the sacking of Troy by the Greeks, commissioned by Ann’s grandfather. In between the framed panels of flames and screaming women and spear-wielding warriors, trompe l’oeil bookcases filled with books had been painted, giving the illusion of a small library decorated with a mural. Behind the false bookcase on the right was the secret stairwell. Even the keyhole was hidden behind a sliding strip of wood disguised as the spine of a book titled The Rape of the Lock. If one did not know the door was there, one would never guess its existence.
Drusilla hardly spared a thought for the stairway, continuing to cross the vestibule as she always did, when a series of loud noises caused her nearly to jump out of her skin.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
She crouched down, her pulse fluttering as her gaze swept around the vestibule. There was no place for an interloper to hide; the space was far too small and completely open.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
The sound hurt her ears. She clenched her jaw tightly; even her teeth hurt from the excruciating volume of the noise. Where the hell was it coming from?
The next set of deafening bangs drew her eye towards the wall where the door to the secret stairway was concealed. Drusilla blanched. Someone was behind the door! Panic seized her, and her mouth went dry. If the existence of the stairwell became common knowledge, it would destroy her alibi. Caroline Drayson had made accusations against her but thus far, the police were focusing on the gallery owner as the only serious suspect, mainly because Ann and Caroline had been very discreet; so discreet that no one knew of the love affair. That would change, and not for the better, if Drusilla’s formerly unshakable alibi was proven false.
She needed to consider her options.
There was a gun in the apartment, a 9mm Sig Sauer that Drusilla had bought for personal protection years ago after being mugged, shortly before she had met Ann at a museum exhibition of Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s paintings. She could go fetch it, Drusilla thought. Whoever was banging on the other side of the door would not be going anywhere, though there still remained the question of how they had gotten into the stairway. The downstairs exit was also concealed, looking exactly like a brick wall, and there was no keyhole there; as a security measure, that door opened only from the inside. On the night of the murder, Drusilla had left it propped open with a loose brick so that she could return to the apartment without being seen—a calculated risk, but the alley was narrow and quite dark, not inviting to vagrants or prostitutes. Had someone witnessed her actions? It was a possible explanation for the noises she was hearing now.
Drusilla frowned. The bangs seemed to be getting louder. She was afraid that one of the tenants on the floor below might hear the ruckus and call the police. Something needed to be done, and quickly! Drusilla decided to get the gun. Once she let whoever it was out of the stairway, she could shoot them, claiming self-defense against an attacker. The mystery of how they had evaded the building’s security and ended up in the penthouse vestibule was something she would leave for the police to ponder, a mystery they would never solve.
The Sig Sauer was exactly where she had left it—in the drawer of a Hepplewhite demi-lune table that stood against the wall in the corridor just before the living room. Drusilla checked the magazine, which held fifteen rounds of Winchester 115-grain Silvertips ammunition; popping the magazine back into place with the heel of her hand, she pulled back the slide to load a bullet into the chamber, and flicked off the safety. The weight of the gun felt good in her hand. Ann had always been so nervous, so frightened of having a gun in the house, as if Drusilla might lose her reason one day and shoot her.
The irony stretched her lips into a tight, unpleasant smile.
Drusilla stalked back into the vestibule, the key in one hand, her gun in the other.
Bang! Bang! Bang! sounded on the door.
Her hand shook as she tried to slide the key into the lock. It skittered off, leaving a faint line in the painted wall. The constant bangs and the strong vibrations were shredding her nerves. Drusilla bit her bottom lip until it bled, forcing her hand to stop trembling. The key slotted into the lock at last. She turned it, hearing the latch thump, and yanked the door open mid-bang, stepping back and swinging the gun up to cover . . . the empty space beyond.
There was no one there.
Wary, the hair on the back of her neck bristling, Drusilla stepped into the quiet stairwell. The stairs themselves were floridly crafted iron-work that spiraled down in narrow treads for thirty floors, each step attached to a serpentine banister and a central pole that had not even had the gloss worn off their coats of black enamel paint. The walls were raw brick, the mortar gone grey with age. A gritty coating of dust lay everywhere. Drusilla glanced down. The dust on the floor was disturbed by only one set of footprints—hers. There was no sign that anyone else had been there.
Drusilla made a mental note to increase her Valium dosage and shut the door, locking it and putting the key in her pocket. She had just turned around when —bang! bang! bang!
She screamed, “What do you want?” then ran back into the apartment, slamming the door behind her. Thankfully, the noises were not repeated or at least, she could not hear them. Whatever sadistic streak her brain was indulging, it seemed to be over for the moment. Nevertheless, it was a long three hours and three martinis before she was sufficiently recovered to venture out onto the roof in the waning hours of daylight.
The first thing she noticed was a red streak that looked disturbingly like blood on the gravel-strewn surface of the roof. Drusilla knelt and ran a finger over the stain. It was cadmium red oil paint—very wet, as though it had just been spilled. She straightened, wondering if she ought to get her gun again. Only a few hours ago she had experienced such a vivid hallucination, it seemed the inside of her skull still echoed with the percussion of a seemingly spectral fist upon the secret door.
Drusilla did not believe in ghosts. There was some human agent here, she was sure; possibly the frizzy-haired woman she had met at Themiskyra, the self-proclaimed speaker of the dead. She recalled the plot of that movie with Ingrid Bergman, where her husband (Charles Boyer, she thought) tried to drive her mad. Gaslight, it was called. Was Ms. Balisarda trying to break her sanity, perhaps force a confession out of her? Was she in league with the police? Was Drusilla a suspect after all? Why play these games with her mind? Blackmail seemed likely, especially considering her new wealth.
She caught her breath. Paranoid fantasies were just as bad as the delusion of a vengeful ghost’s antics. Perhaps she needed to take a vacation, get away from the city for a while. Drusilla exhaled forcefully, her resolve firming. Once she had taken care of the upcoming auction, she would travel somewhere sunny and warm. Spain, perhaps, or Monaco, or she could do the kitschy tourist thing and try Hawaii for three or four weeks. The destination did not matter. Escaping her too-familiar surroundings was the point.
Continuing to cross the roof, Drusilla found more of the red splashes, glistening like freshly spilled blood. Her anger grew as she came closer to the studio. The building’s glass panes were streaked with algae, light green and dark green mottled with black spots, obscuring the interior. Drusilla opened the door and paused.
On an easel at the back of the studio was a finished canvas. Drusilla knew this was not possible; all of Ann’s completed works had been pre-sold before her exhibition at the Drayson Gallery. She started towards the easel and stepped in something tacky. The studio’s floor was covered in cadmium red paint. It was slightly drier than the stuff outside, but moist enough that the soles of her shoes were having difficulty finding purchase. Drusilla half-walked, half-slid the few feet necessary to get directly in front of the easel.
The painting was in Ann Leigh’s distinctive photo-realistic/surrealistic style. Where Giuseppe Arcimboldo had famously combined flowers or fruits or other natural elements together to form portraits, the bits fitted together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, Ann had painted disparate items like automobile and industrial parts, product labels, bottles and jars, computer circuits and other flotsam of modern living to make faces and bodies that were often disturbing and always interesting. This painting was no exception. Ann Leigh’s face stared back at Drusilla, the composition formed by coils and pinwheels of rope—rough hemp rope, just like the one Drusilla had used to strangle her.
“What the hell?” Drusilla whispered.
There was the outline of Ann’s face, the rendering skillfully invoking the lines and planes that were so familiar to Drusilla, even if it was nothing more than rope. The eyes were evident in the slits between two stacked layers, but they were black rather than blue, glittering unpleasantly with an expression akin to greed. Drusilla stared, caught between conflicting fight/flight impulses, and with an unreasoning rage simmering inside her, coming to the boil. Suddenly, she could not take any more. It was too much for her tortured nerves to bear. Madness beat at the fringes of her awareness. Drusilla snapped.
A shrill scream burst out of her mouth. She grabbed the first thing her hand laid upon—a long-bladed knife, part of the junk collection that lined the shelves inside the studio—and slashed at the canvas again and again, still screaming. Drusilla was aware that her mouth was stretched open in a snarl, that her chin and cheeks were wet with saliva and tears, that her hair had come down from its pins and was straggling in her eyes, clinging to her face. She did not care. It felt glorious to unleash her fear and pain and fury with every stroke of the knife, killing Ann over and over again in an orgy of destruction.
“Bitch! Bitch! Bitch!” she cried, her throat spasming around the words. A part of her was appalled by this violent behavior, while the rest—the savage that lurked within—bared its fangs in triumph. “Why won’t you stay dead, goddamn it!”
When the canvas was in tatters, Drusilla turned her attention to the rest of the studio. Paint tubes were wrenched open, the contents splattered about, green mixing with blue mixing with red and yellow until there was just an unappetizing brown covering the floor, the walls, and Drusilla herself. Other items were bent or torn or smashed or ripped apart while Drusilla grunted and howled. As a child, she had thrown severe tantrums, going straight in with her fingernails if thwarted; self-control had never been her strong suit. Punishments, medication and therapists had taught her some measure of restraint, making her swallow her impulses and fight against the swelling black rage that often threatened to engulf her, obliterating any semblance of internal reserve.
Drusilla let go of any constraint and allowed herself to wallow in the wrecking of the things that symbolized Ann Leigh.
“Bitch! Goddamned bitch!”
At long last, the strength ran out of her and Drusilla collapsed in the mess of spilled paint, broken objects and shattered glass. Only the bent and twisted framework of the greenhouse had survived; she had somehow managed to knock the glass panes out of the roof without inflicting serious injury on herself—a minor miracle for which she was now grateful. There were several long stinging cuts on her forearms and hands, and another burning pain in her face that told her she had suffered a cut on her cheekbone. Her eyes felt swollen, her head ached, and it hurt when she swallowed. The screaming and shouting had strained her vocal cords. Gazing at the complete havoc she had wrought, Drusilla was not surprised by the physical repercussions of her actions. It had been a long time since she had indulged in a tantrum that felt so very satisfying, even if she was left exhausted and sore at the end.
She managed to rise on shaky legs. Debris dropped off her shirt and trousers. Drusilla slid over the floor, which was now coated in a thick layer of paint, and walked across the roof to the door that led back down into the penthouse apartment. She moved slowly, deliberately, feeling as if she had aged a decade. Her arms and shoulders sang with the pain of overused muscles. After the cathartic outburst, Drusilla’s internal turmoil was calmed. She was cool on the inside, untouched and untouchable. No emotion had the power to disturb her sanguinity.
“Bitch,” she whispered without heat, letting the knife fall.
Inside the apartment, Drusilla did not bother to clean herself up but got straight into bed, staining the sheets with paint and blood. Reaction set in and she began shivering. Drusilla pulled the comforter over her head and burrowed down into the bedding, seeking warmth and darkness like a wounded animal. It was not until she was almost asleep that she remembered the ribbons of canvas, all that remained of the painting of Ann’s face, lying heaped in a tangle in a corner of the studio. That was the last thing she had seen before turning her back on the mess.
As empty as her bed.
As empty as her soul
Drusilla hunkered down under the comforter and cried, but there were no tears, just guttural sobs that locked muscle against bone as convulsions of bitterness and misery wracked her frame. A shadow settled over the top of the comforter, blocking out the muted light.
A woman’s voice might have called her name, but Dru refused to listen.
“Oh, Dru . . . You need help, honey.”
Drusilla took a sip of her martini and regarded her friend—Theodora Hawkins, universally known as Teddie. “I know that. But I also know that I’m not going to a therapist, Teddie. No, wait, hear me out.” She put up a hand to halt the protest that was sure to come; Theodora had been in therapy since the age of twelve. “If I go to a doctor and tell him I’ve been having hallucinations and hearing voices, the next step is restraints and lithium at a private and very expensive clinic. Thanks, but no thanks.”
Theodora pursed her perfect collagen lips. Had it not been for the massive amount of Botox injected into her face, Drusilla suspected that Theodora would have raised her eyebrows too. “It won’t be a scene out of Frances Farmer’s biography, I swear. Hey, I’m worried about you, girl. You look positively haggard.”
Unconsciously, Drusilla rubbed the line she knew had appeared between her brows—a sign of the stress she had been under since Ann’s death (Ann’s murder, whispered her conscience). “Teddie, what I need is a vacation.”
“Yes, get out of the city for a while.” Theodora waved her cocktail glass, sloshing a bit of liquid over the rim. “Go find some sweet young corn-fed thang with roses in her cheeks and an ass you can sink your teeth into, and screw yourself senseless. Live a little!”
A passing waiter gave them an unsubtle smirk. Her appetite gone, Drusilla pushed her untouched salad away. She stopped the waiter and ordered another martini—the third since joining her friend at the fashionable little café opposite the park. Theodora put down her own cocktail and touched Drusilla’s wrist. Her acrylic fingernails were french manicured, as immaculate as the woman herself and just as fake.
“Tell me what’s going on,” Theodora said, compassion and concern in her green eyes. “Just talk to me, Dru. I promise I won’t call the psychiatric ward unless you’re having a complete psychotic break, okay?”
Drusilla sighed. Confession was supposed to be good for the soul and frankly, she could use a sympathetic ear. Theodora had been her friend since college; she would not mock or break a confidence. Drusilla drained the martini glass. “I hear her. Ann, I mean. She doesn’t say anything except my name. And . . . and . . . I see things, Teddie. Her face, her eyes, her mouth . . .” A shudder trembled across her skin. “I see her everywhere. Other stuff, too. There are no ghosts, I don’t believe in them, but the things that have been happening, that I think have been happening . . .” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “Am I going crazy?” In truth, Drusilla dreaded the answer to that question as much as she had dreaded uttering it.
“I don’t think you’re insane,” Theodora said at last after a pause. “I think you’re grieving, Dru. I mean, what a hell of a shock, finding your partner murdered like that! It’s understandable that you’d lose your grip a little.”
Drusilla twitched violently at the word ‘murdered’, and hoped Theodora would not notice. “What should I do?”
“You doing the anti-anxiety thing already? Dr. Feelgood’s happy pills?”
It was Theodora’s turn to sigh. “Look, girlfriend, I know you don’t go for the soft option, but there’s this new psychic I’ve been seeing. A medium. She’s absolutely amazing. Brilliant! You should go see her, maybe get some closure.”
A new martini was put in front of Drusilla and the empty glass whisked away with consummate skill by a waiter who was almost invisible in his unobtrusiveness. She took a sip; the gin was biting, so cold it seemed to burn her sinuses. “You’re right, I think psychics are false at best; at worst, they’re predators who prey on people made vulnerable by grief.”
“Still, you could give it a try. Exorcise your psychological ghosts. Who knows? It might help, and it certainly can’t hurt. You’re savvy enough to detect the former and avoid the latter, right?”
Drusilla wrinkled her nose. Theodora was one of those women who spent her life chasing the next big consciousness-raising event, a new raison d’etre. Over the years this search had included her dabbling in channeling, meditation, tantric sex, yoga, astrology, lucid dreaming, New World shamanism, colonics, and pseudo-scientific therapies like aromatherapy, rebirthing, hypnosis, past life regression, reiki, acupuncture, crystal healing and herbal remedies. At the moment, it seemed Theodora was back to her old stand-bys—psychic mediums and cosmetic surgery, liberally laced with alcohol and Zoloft.
“Who is this woman, this new fantastic psychic of yours?” Drusilla asked out of curiosity.
“Her name’s J. Morgan Balisarda.”
The thin stem of the martini glass snapped when Drusilla’s hand convulsed.
There came a pause in the conversation while the mess was dealt with in the café’s discreet manner, the wet tablecloth replaced, the broken glass removed and a fresh martini delivered to the table. Drusilla had not suffered so much as a scratch. After a new Gerbera daisy centerpiece had been put in place and the waiters had gone to dispose of the detritus and attend other tables, Theodora said dryly, “I take it that you know Ms. Balisarda.”
“No,” Drusilla said quickly. Too quickly, she realized, watching a thoughtful expression flash over Theodora’s face, the skin stretched so tightly over cheekbone and chin implants, it had the sheen of plastic. “She gave me her card.”
“Where did you two meet?”
“Themiskyra. We didn’t exactly hook up,” Drusilla hastened to explain.
“Oh, honey, you don’t have to tell me! I just didn’t think Morgan would be your type. She’s kind of . . . well, zaftig.” Theodora moved a hand through the air, outlining invisible though generous curves. “Plenty of meat on that girl.”
“It wasn’t like that.” Drusilla was at a loss and decided to steer the conversation away from such a dangerous topic. “Anyway, it was just a surprise, getting her card at the club and then finding out you’re seeing her.”
“Mmm-hmm. Synchronicity at work.” Theodora paused while the attentive waiter renewed her cocktail—a lethal concoction of fruit juice, apricot brandy and gin called a Lady Killer. “Morgan’s the best I’ve ever seen,” she continued. “That woman’s so good, it’s scary. I got in touch with my Great-Aunt Lucinda—you remember, she died last year—and found out it was Cousin Rebecca who stole Great-Aunt Lucinda’s diamond ring before the will was read. And that Cartier ring was supposed to be mine! I confronted the little gonif, and Morgan was right.” Theodora wiggled the fingers of her hand, making the big diamond ring on her middle finger throw off blue-white sparks in the light streaming in through the plate glass window. “Rebecca gave me Great-Aunt Lucinda’s pearl necklace, too, so I’d keep quiet and not tell her mother about the ring. Ha!”
“That’s unbelievable,” Drusilla said, though she did not think for a second that Morgan Balisarda had any real power. She knew that Rebecca had a kleptomania problem; she had heard Theodora complain about the woman’s magpie tendencies often enough. If a piece of jewelry went missing and Rebecca was in the vicinity, it was a fairly safe bet that she was involved. No psychic visions were necessary; just a little research into public records would reveal Rebecca’s numerous arrests and her history of court-ordered therapy programs. She gave Morgan Balisarda credit for doing her homework, but there was no ESP here.
Theodora finished her cocktail and called for the bill. “Unconvinced, huh? You should attend one of her open séances. Tonight at nine o’clock sharp. Here’s the address.” Poking around her purse, she found a pen and scribbled on a napkin, thrusting the result at Drusilla when she was done. “Everybody’s welcome, skeptics and believers alike. Trust me, hon. You won’t be disappointed.”
Drusilla took the napkin and tucked it into her jacket pocket, more to mollify Theodora than with any serious intention of attending a public séance.
That evening around eight o’clock, Drusilla began to feel restless. There was a persistent itch between her shoulder blades, like ants crawling under her skin. The irritating sensation spread down her arms and over her back, until she wished she could use a blade to cut herself open and let the insects out. That kind of thinking led to emergency room visits and twenty-four hour psychiatric admittance for observation, though. Drusilla found that the Xanax was not working, nor did Valium take off more than the edge. As the clock hand crept closer to eight thirty, the restlessness resolved into a certainty that she needed to go out of the apartment. Every corner seemed to be infested with chittering shadows; every creak, every click, every mild groan of stiff door hinges was fraught with malevolence.
Unable to bear it any longer, Drusilla took a taxi cab to the address of the auditorium where J. Morgan Balisarda, Speaker of the Dead, held her weekly open séance. It was only when she exited the cab that Drusilla was granted relief from the nagging annoyance that had driven her out of the apartment. This was obviously the right thing to do. Entering the auditorium, she found a seat near the back and settled in to watch the show.
Frizzy-haired Morgan Balisarda proved to be electric on stage, her charismatic presence only slightly dampened by the dumpy tweed jacket and ankle-length skirt she wore, garments that did absolutely nothing for her plump figure. Light reflected from the round lenses of her glasses, hiding her eyes and lending her an alien insectile appearance. She held a microphone and spoke in a running dialogue, her head cocked to one side as if she was listening to voices only she could hear. Drusilla suspected that might actually be the case; they could do wonders these days with electronic communication devices, so small as to be virtually undetectable
“. . . and now there’s someone coming through whose name is . . . yes, Marianne. She’s an older woman, very handsome; her last name is Travis. Marianne Travis would like to contact her . . . niece,” Morgan said. “Yes, that’s you, madam, in the red sweater.” She paused to allow the audience’s delighted applause to fade, while the woman she had indicated stood up, flushing as a spotlight focused on her.
“Your aunt says that what you’re looking for was hidden in the family Bible,” Morgan said, pacing to the other side of the stage. “Does that make sense to you?”
The woman in the red sweater nodded, smiling either in delight or in absolute terror at being the focus of everyone’s attention. More applause greeted this acknowledgement.
Morgan went on, “There’s something else Marianne wants you to know. She’s happier now; she’s not suffering anymore. She’s in a much better place, and she forgives you. Do I need to continue, Janet?” she asked softly. “Do you know what Marianne means?”
Janet’s flush turned hotter. Her smile disappeared; her mouth opened and closed a few times. The applause turned tentative as audience members realized something was wrong, even if they did not know precisely what. The atmosphere turned chilling rather than friendly. Without moving an inch or speaking a word, Morgan became a figure of menace. Drusilla watched spell-bound as shadows appeared to grow in the corners of the stage, then drift along the confines of the auditorium before settling from floor to ceiling. She was certain the lights did not dim, but somehow the room seemed darker, as if a veil lay over her eyes. The spotlight on Janet burned, cruelly highlighting her distress.
When Morgan spoke again, she sounded harsher, more rasping – the deeper voice of an older woman who had smoked for a good portion of her life. “I forgive you, Janet,” she croaked. Janet turned white, her hands spastically clutching the back of the seat in front of her. Morgan said in her old woman’s rasp, “You know why, little Jan, you sly puss . . .”
Letting out a whimper and looking as if she was going to vomit, Janet grabbed her coat and purse and bolted out of the auditorium.
On the stage, Morgan shook her head. “Some people have delicate nerves,” she said in her normal voice, and just like that, the atmosphere relented, the shadows lifted, and the place became friendly and cozy. The audience let out nervous little giggles, no doubt believing Janet’s hasty departure was part of the evening’s entertainment. Morgan continued speaking, claiming to contact dead relatives and passing on innocuous messages about how happy everyone was in the afterlife. The scene with Janet was not repeated. Still, Drusilla remained on edge, disturbed by the incident and by the insinuation that Morgan’s so-called ‘gift’ had a sinister side that could strike without warning.
After the séance was over, Drusilla got up to leave the auditorium with the rest of the audience, relieved that she had not been singled out. That relief died when Morgan’s voice boomed from the sound system. “Drusilla Neil. You should come backstage. It’s important.”
Something of her surprise must have shown on her face. A woman next to her grinned and poked Drusilla in the ribs with an elbow. “Lucky!” she said. “Morgan always invites one person backstage, and it looks like you’re it! God, I’d give anything to be you right now!”
She picked her way down the rows of seats to a door to the right of the stage. A well-muscled man in black stood in front; he wore an ID card stamped SECURITY in big red letters on a cord around his neck. Drusilla approached him, her feelings of apprehension growing, but he stood aside, opened the door and waved her through.
Backstage was a warren of short narrow corridors and doors leading to one bland room after another. There were quite a few people bustling about with headsets and cell phones whose incessant chatter was dulled by the low ceiling and oddly distorted by echoes from the thin walls. Drusilla caught a glimpse of frizzy curls disappearing around a corner and hurried to catch up. She found Morgan Balisarda in a small room that stank of scorched coffee. The cause of the acrid smell was evident; a large stainless steel coffee urn sat on a rickety table, flanked by paper cups, powdered creamer and sugar packets. Morgan, a cup in her hand, glanced up when Drusilla entered.
“It’s pretty nasty,” she said, nodding at the urn, “but it’s caffeinated.”
“No, thank you,” Drusilla answered curtly. She thrust a hand into the pocket of her coat, and hooked her other hand around the shoulder strap of her Louis Vuitton purse, her body assuming a defiant stance. “What do you want, Ms. Balisarda?”
Morgan’s gaze was hidden behind the lenses of her spectacles. “Do you have any idea what happens to you when you die?” she asked.
The question seemed apropos of nothing. “You die. That’s it,” Drusilla said, fighting to keep still, to not allow her impatience bleed into her tone or her posture.
“That’s the biggest mystery of them all, isn’t it? People believe so many different things but nobody knows for sure except the dead, and they ain’t talking.” Morgan paused, then went on, “Except to me, of course.”
“I don’t have time to play games,” Drusilla said. She turned around, prepared to go. Behind her back, Morgan said, “Ann Leigh. Now, that’s one talkative spirit.”
Furious, Drusilla whirled back to confront Morgan. “How dare you drag Ann’s name into this sordid little ploy!” she spat. “Let’s cut to the chase, Ms. Balisarda. How much?”
“How much what?”
Drusilla scoffed at Morgan’s innocent act. “How much money do you want? That’s what this is about, isn’t it? Blackmail. You think you know something, or maybe you stumbled on a scandal, something in Annie’s past that you’re going to expose unless I pay you to keep quiet.”
Morgan shook her head in protest but Drusilla ignored the gesture, treating the lie with the contempt it deserved. “Don’t think that I’m going to give in to your threats,” Drusilla said. “The only reason I’m not calling the police right now is because I loved Ann, and her memory deserves respect, not to be dragged through the mud.”
“I don’t think you understand anything, Ms. Neill,” Morgan said, her tone laced with amusement. “Come on; let’s go to my dressing room and discuss this like civilized adults, not shout melodramatic statements at each other like we’re in a Dynasty re-run.”
Drusilla snorted and thought about simply leaving. However, self-preservation was stronger than frustration. She needed to know what Morgan knew, otherwise she could not make an accurate threat assessment; it was as simple as that. Although her nature rebelled against such passivity, she would have to let Morgan take the lead until she could figure out a way to regain control of the situation. She inclined her head and followed Morgan along the labyrinthine corridors until they were alone together in a small room with the door closed behind them.
Morgan put down her coffee cup on the dressing table but remained standing, her hands clasped behind her back. “As I was saying before, Ann Leigh is quite a talker. I’m guessing she was pretty gregarious in life, right?”
Drusilla said nothing and kept her face as blank as possible, not willing to give anything away.
“I’ll try to explain, Ms. Neill. Sometimes, when a person dies, they linger instead of moving on. That part has to do the personality of the deceased. There are people who, for one reason or another, just don’t want to let go. Death isn’t a comfort; there’s no peace in the grave. They carry their burdens with them into the afterlife. They exist in a state of confusion, in a place of shadows and mist, not knowing exactly where they are or what’s happened to them, frustrated because no one pays attention to them. Negative emotions like anger, fear and despair fuel their animosity towards the living.”
“What does this have to do with Annie?” Drusilla burst out angrily. The woman was making no sense.
“There are folks who died unexpectedly,” Morgan said, as though Drusilla had not spoken. “Struck by lightning, run over by a bus, breaking their neck in a bathtub . . . or murdered. Their voices are the loudest of all. They demand to be heard. Take Janet, for example—the woman tonight whose Aunt Marianne was speaking through me. Marianne was dying of cancer when Janet put a pillow over her face to end her suffering. That sounds like a good idea, doesn’t it? Who would want to live in agony? We say things like that to each other—‘If it was me, I’d want to die rather than be in constant pain.’ But to Marianne, every second of life was precious, a moment to be cherished despite the hurt. She wasn’t ready to let go. Janet’s successful attempt at euthanasia took that decision away from her.”
Drusilla’s mouth was dry. Her mind chased itself in circles. Oh my God, she knows! She’s going to tell the police! She knows I killed Ann! What does she want? Christ!
Morgan continued matter-of-factly, “You’ve been seeing your partner, haven’t you? Ann keeps popping up out of nowhere, exposing herself to you, doing things to show you that she’s still here. It’s only going to get worse unless you give her what she wants.”
“You mean until I give you what you want!” Drusilla said, finding her voice. “What have you been doing to me? Some kind of drug?” She had always mocked paranoiacs who wore tin foil hats to keep the government/alien conspiracy/Illuminati from beaming behavior-modifying thoughts into their heads. Suddenly, the idea that she might have been brainwashed in some fashion did not seem that far fetched. “You used hypnosis on me, made me forget that you’d done it. Made me see things that aren’t there.”
“Hypnosis can’t cause you to hallucinate,” Morgan said. She sounded entirely reasonable, as if she was not the one spouting nonsense. “It sure as hell can’t make your dead partner follow you around, desperate to communicate. Listen, Ann wants to tell you . . .”
“I don’t care!” Drusilla screamed through a throat that felt raw and sore, as if she had been gargling broken glass. Unshed tears burned in the corners of her eyes. Realizing that she must be presenting a picture of classic hysteria, she forced herself to adopt a more calm façade despite the mixture of fear and fury that was roiling in her stomach, making her regret that afternoon’s martinis. “It’s your turn to listen to me, Ms. Balisarda. I don’t know how you’re doing it, but it’s going to stop right now. You stop harassing me, you hear? Just stop.”
Morgan’s smile faltered. “The longer you make her wait, the worse it’s going to be.”
“I told you to stop it!” Drusilla fumbled inside her purse and drew out the Sig Sauer she had taken to carrying around with her. Her arm trembled but the muzzle of the gun remained steadily aimed at Morgan’s face where the color had drained away, leaving the frizzy-haired woman pale as milk. “Did you really think you could threaten me?” Drusilla snarled. “Did you think I wouldn’t do something about it?”
“Hey, we’re cool, there’s no quarrel here,” Morgan said, raising her hands slightly, palms out in a gesture of submission.
“Don’t you tell me . . . Shut up. Shut up!” Drusilla backed away a step. “This stops now, or I won’t be responsible! Leave me alone. Just leave me the hell alone.” The feel of the rubber grip against her palm was exaggerated by the adrenaline sparking in her veins; it was like squeezing a pine cone, and she half expected to be pricked to the blood.
A coalescence of shadows boiled in the mirror at the dressing table.
It was very hard to judge what was going on inside Morgan’s head, given that her eyes were shielded by those damned spectacles. Drusilla half-hoped the woman would rush her and give her an opportunity to claim self-defense. Instead, to her horror, Morgan’s head cocked to one side. Her mouth sagged open. A whispery voice that she instinctively knew was Ann’s said, “Dru . . .”
The next day, Drusilla went to the library to look through back issues of the local newspapers—specifically, the obituary notices. After several hours of searching, she finally found what she was looking for. Marianne Travis, she read, had died in a hospice six months earlier following an agonizing battle with pancreatic cancer. This was information anyone could obtain. Drusilla reckoned that hospice employees were probably not adverse to making a bit of extra cash by revealing what they might have witnessed or just suspected when it came to patients’ deaths. That was the explanation for last night’s ‘Aunt Marianne’ episode—Morgan Balisarda was an expert manipulator who targeted people with secrets.
People like Drusilla herself.
Feeling that forewarned was forearmed, she went to the section that housed books on the occult, hauntings, life after death, ghosts, poltergeists and other phenomena, hoping to learn what further frights she might expect to happen. It was possible that these hallucinations of hers followed a pattern. Browsing the shelves for relevant volumes, Drusilla was surprised to discover that Morgan Balisarda was the author of a non-fiction book titled Waking the Dead. Not wanting to spend any more time at the library, Drusilla checked it out and went home, first stopping at a vegetarian restaurant and bakery to pick up a pint of Moroccan tomato-lentil soup, a low carb pumpkin seed loaf, and a big cup of her favorite iced green tea blended with honeydew melon and kiwi juices. Back at the apartment, she ate her lunch then settled down to leaf through Morgan’s book.
Waking the Dead was an autobiographical account of Morgan’s forays into the so-called psychic realm. The woman claimed to hear the voices of departed souls, beginning at the age of seven when she had hidden inside her father’s mortuary and watched him prepare corpses for embalming. Drusilla found the prose down-to-earth, lacking the flamboyance she might have expected from such a charismatic personality.
One passage in particular caught her attention:
I am surrounded by whispers, Morgan wrote. Every waking day, the voices of the dead surround me. I’ve grown used to it. Sometimes, though, there’s a louder voice, a spirit that does not ask for my attention but demands it. The messages these spirits want to pass on aren’t necessarily what you or I might deem essential; indeed, they’re almost always prosaic, like ‘Be sure Mary gets my grandmother’s silver service, not Christine’ or ‘I knew you were having an affair with your secretary.’ To those of us who are still alive, these things may not be of pressing importance against the fact that the person has died, but the dead have other priorities. Their concerns are not the concerns of the living anymore.
Drusilla frowned. It all sounded like utter crap to her, the usual nineteenth century spiritualism beliefs being regurgitated as New Age bullshit for twenty-first century suckers. She quickly checked the table of contents, wrinkling her nose at chapters named Instrumental Transcommunication, Rorschach Audio and other incomprehensible drivel.
The patter of raindrops against the window panes attracted her attention. She glanced up, and the lights flickered. Drusilla blinked. The lights flickered again. Drusilla waited but whatever electrical anomaly had created the disturbance seemed to have ended. She returned to the book, dipping into random chapters. The distant growl of thunder was subconsciously acknowledged but it was not immediate enough to warrant her full attention. Drusilla read a few more paragraphs from the chapter she was skimming until a motion from outside slipped into her peripheral vision.
At first, Drusilla thought it might be a piece of paper or a discarded potato chips bag, swept up from the sidewalk many floors below and carried upward on the storm. The profusion of tall buildings set almost directly against one another in this part of the city—to be honest, in most parts of the overly populated city—meant there could be very odd-acting crosswinds chasing each other around the upper floors. Her next thought was that it might be a bird, one of the city’s ubiquitous pigeons with sooty wings and the cocksure attitude of an urban survivor, or possibly a rare hawk or a sparrow.
The bird theory was given further credence when there was a knock against the glass doors that opened out onto the balcony, a knock hard enough to make the doors shudder in their metal frame. Drusilla dropped the book and walked across the room, wondering if she would find a stunned or broken-necked pigeon lying on the balcony, feathers drenched by the rain. She stopped when she heard the splashing of water in the bathroom, a tap turned on to a waterfall roar. Not the shower, but the bathtub. The old fashioned, claw-footed bathtub that Ann had used almost exclusively. She swallowed hard.
“Is that the best you can do?” Drusilla said after a long pause. The faint smell of oil paint wafted from the direction of the bathroom. She raised her voice and repeated, “Is that the best you can do, Annie? Making a stink, making a nuisance of yourself, a few little bangs and whispers and I’m supposed to be scared shitless?”
She stood with fists clenched, trying to breathe around the huge knot in her chest. “You stupid bitch!” she shouted, watching curls of steam escaping under the bottom crack of the bathroom door. “You stupid, pathetic, fat-assed bitch! Never did anything right in your life, did you? Did you?”
The wisps of steam were abruptly sucked back into the bathroom.
“Go on, then – do your worst! Bring it on!” Drusilla screamed. “You don’t scare me, Annie Leigh! You were a pussy in life, and you’re a complete pussy now that you’re dead!”
The bathroom door bulged, the wooden panels letting out an ominous creak.
Drusilla began to laugh, high-pitched and hysterical. She laughed until her face hurt, until her ribs ached, until her stomach felt like it was full of smoldering coals. Outside, something banged on the balcony doors again, the sound audible over the smash of rain against glass. Apart from the storm, it was as though the entire apartment was holding its breath as fragments of time ticked over—one, two, three, four, five . . . the wet slap of a footstep on the tiled bathroom floor cut off her laughter mid-gasp. Drusilla clapped a hand over her mouth, the breath frozen painfully in her lungs.
Negative emotions like anger, fear and despair fuel their animosity towards the living, Drusilla remembered Morgan saying. It’s only going to get worse unless you give her what she wants. Given the ozone crackle of electricity in the air, like the discharge of not-too-distant lightning, Drusilla’s continued denial regarding the existence of ghosts seemed a futile effort, the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings against the glass sides of a killing jar.
Another wet footstep, and another—and the bathroom door groaned open. Drusilla remained poised in the living room, her gaze fixed on what lay beyond the swinging door. For a moment, she could have sworn there was a shape in the swirling steam, a familiar figure with blue-rimmed black eyes. Drusilla opened her mouth, and there was a blinding flash as every light in the apartment exploded, leaving the place utterly dark.
Without warning, heavy stuff slithered on her head, dropping in strings from above. Drusilla screamed and raked her fingernails over what felt like dry, dusty snakes, coil upon coil heaped around her neck, trailing over her body and on the floor. Lightning briefly illuminated the scene, and she realized that it was rope—length after length of rope. Drusilla shimmied in place, desperate to shake it off. The rough fibers caught on her skin, scraping her neck and arms. She tore at the coils, which seemed to be controlled by a sentient mind; the more she struggled, the more tightly the ropes were wound around her body.
The bathroom door slammed shut, then opened and slammed shut again . . . and again . . . and again.
Drusilla felt a bit of rope trying to insinuate its way past her lips, a blind rooting around her mouth like some obscene attempt at oral rape. Her struggles grew more violent. She lost her footing and fell to the floor, grunting as her shoulder struck the edge of the coffee table on the way down. Her fall did nothing to dislodge the ropes that continued to hold her fast. She squealed but kept her mouth clamped shut. The bit of rope—she thought it must be the end of a longer piece—continued probing and nudging until it slipped past her lips and tapped against her teeth, seeking entrance.
She suffered the sudden horror of imagining what might happen if she opened her mouth to that insistent prodding, allowing the rope to slide inside her throat, past her trachea, filling her with its twisted hemp fibers. How far would it go? How long would it take for her to choke, her airway blocked by rope? Or might there be further indignities before death came for her? Would the coroner make his Y-shaped incision, open her body cavity and discover rope in her stomach, her bowels, protruding from her rectum?
Footsteps across the room, coming towards her, accompanied by the drizzle of water on the floor made Drusilla redouble her efforts to break free, struggling until colorful spots swam in her vision. The ropes pinioned her wrists and ankles, squeezed her waist, looped around her throat. Nausea made her roll over on her side, gagging without parting her teeth. Drusilla’s eyes were open but there was little to be seen. Another dazzling lightning burst showed her nothing but a series of wet footprints.
A mouth swam in the air—grey, all grey, with not a hint of life in it. Hungry eyes materialized, burning into hers. “Dru . . .” came the whisper. “Dru . . . I want . . . I want . . . you . . .”
Drusilla closed her eyes, denying that voice with every shred of her being.
The bathroom door banged open; it shut again after a moment. Hot water cascaded over Drusilla’s face, the temperature uncomfortable but not enough to scald. Water trickled into her nose, searing her sinuses. She coughed, choked, and spat out liquid, realizing with a sort of tepid wonder that the ropes were limp now, and easily shrugged off. Drusilla sobbed and scrabbled away crab-wise on her hands and knees. Wet hair hung in her face, obscuring her eyes. Uncontrollable tremors shuddered over her skin. Shock made reality a blank.
It might have been a few minutes or a few hours before Drusilla was able to stand.
She felt detached from her body, a passive rider with no control; the emotional wreckage of her mind was not cohesive enough for self-conscious thought. Everything that happened next was at one remove, her body obeying the dictates of unconscious instruction, the requirements of the id, bypassing the ego and superego. Lost in her fugue state, Drusilla was aware of what she was doing but only in the vaguest sense—picking up a coil of rope, stripping the water from its length by running it through the circle of her thumb and forefinger, dragging a wooden chair from the dining room to stand beneath the ceiling hook where a Turkish glass lamp had once depended. She climbed onto the chair and took some time looping the rope through the hook and fashioning a noose.
Drusilla balanced on the chair, the noose around her neck.
Lightning flashed, a blue-white strobe that left a fading after-image in her vision.
Ann’s voice echoed through the apartment: “Dru . . .”
Give her what she wants . . .
The apartment door banged open; Drusilla had forgotten to lock it after returning from the library. Morgan Balisarda stood on the threshold, a frizzy-haired silhouette, back-lit by the light streaming in from the vestibule. “Ms. Neill, I’m sorry but I have to speak to you; the doorman let me come up because I told him it was an emergency and . . . Oh, my God! Don’t!” the woman cried, flinging out a hand. “Come down from there, okay?”
Drusilla heard Morgan speaking distantly, as if she was far away. “Ann wants to tell you she’s sorry . . . She’s sorry about the affair! She’s sorry that she cheated on you. This isn’t what she wants. Don’t do it! Please don’t hurt yourself. The dead don’t care about justice or revenge, Drusilla. Those are the concerns of the living.”
“Listen to me,” Morgan went on. “Ann still loves you. She forgives you. All of this . . . she’s been trying to get your attention. That’s it. There was no menace intended, no malice. I swear to you! She just wanted to talk, to make you hear her.”
There are people who, for one reason or another, just don’t want to let go . . .
Drusilla’s mouth opened and the words spilled out without her volition, “I killed Ann Leigh. I strangled her. I gave them both Rohypnol and I framed Caroline Drayson. Caroline is innocent. I’m guilty.” The voice did not sound anything like her own. “I murdered Annie because she was leaving me for Caroline.”
Death clings to you . . .
Give her what she wants . . .
“No one wants you to die.” Morgan was pleading now. “Please, Drusilla . . . don’t make me have to listen to another whisper. Don’t make me have to listen to your whispering from the grave. Ann doesn’t want that, either. Come down from there. It’s okay. No one’s going to hurt you. Whatever’s going on, we can work it out, I promise.”
The dead have other priorities . . .
“Okay, you know what? You’re right. It was a fake from the beginning, just a scam. I planted cameras and projectors and . . . and other stuff here in your apartment. I hypnotized you into believing that Ann was haunting you. In another week, I was going to hit you up for twenty thousand dollars, do a whole exorcism bit after you’d been softened up enough to believe. You were right, Drusilla. So why don’t you come down and we’ll talk about it?”
The truth at last, or more lies? Consciousness returned, fueled by indignation and despair. Nothing would ever be right again. Drusilla recognized the hunger she had seen in Ann’s eyes; she understood the appetite that drove desire, and she also understood that there were consequences to every action. Drusilla had never been one to deny her own responsibilities. She was guilty of murder. Ann wanted retribution for her lost life. Whether it was the ghost of Ann Leigh or her own conscience, Drusilla did not know or care. The result was—and would always be—the same. The destruction of her life had begun in the same moment that she had stared into Ann’s eyes and watched the woman die. Morgan Balisarda was wrong; the dead did want justice, they did want revenge. This was the only logical end to the tragedy that she had set in motion. To do otherwise would be a farce.
“Christ! I’m calling the police. Don’t move.”
The knot was digging into the tender flesh behind Drusilla’s ear.
“Drusilla! No!” Morgan staggered forward, her cell phone falling from her hand and skittering along the floor.
Drusilla smiled and stepped off the chair, into Ann’s arms.