Last Night on Findy Sickle Ridge

by Martha Taylor, soulcake[at]bellsouth.net

Part II: THE DEATH OF CLARA KIMBLE


Chapter 11: Christmas Eve

The rain began at three in the afternoon, washing the bare trunks of the gray December forest even darker. By sunset it was still coming down, spattering on the fallen leaves and overflowing the gutters. Arthur went to his Aunt Betty's Christmas Eve party anyway. The rain fit his mood, gray and depressed. He had never cared for Christmas.


It was after nine o'clock, and the children were still opening their presents when Uncle Clarence pulled aside the living room curtains and announced in his best Jimmy Stewart voice, "Hey, look everybody, it's snowing!"

Every twig on every tree in the yard was glistening with ice. The driveway was a smooth white sheet under the glare of the porch light. "You'll just have to stay here tonight, Arthur," Betty announced. "All the rain we've had today, and the way the temperature's dropping, the highway up the ridge will be solid ice."

But Arthur had no desire to wake up in Betty and Clarence's house on Christmas morning, so wishing everyone a merry Christmas, he left with Betty calling after him, "You be sure and ring us up as soon as you get home, now. I won't be able to sleep a wink until I know you're safe and sound."

"There's no reason for you to sit up," Arthur said. "If the roads get bad, I'll turn around and come straight back."

By the time Arthur had made it half way up the ridge, the roads had gotten very bad indeed. The snow was mixed with sleet, and the trees were bent double with the weight of ice on their branches. On one steep curve his rear wheels finally slipped, and the whole car began to slide, traveling smoothly and irresistibly sideways until it hit the guardrail on the opposite side of the highway with a dull, metallic thud.

Arthur turned off the ignition with shaking hands, and then sat very still, considering his options. Maybe he really should turn around and go back.

But in the end he decided to press on. It had been bad enough getting this far up the ridge. Driving downhill could only be worse. The wheels spun on ice when he started the engine. He let up on the accelerator slightly and the car lurched forward. As he eased back onto the highway, he was thinking bleakly that he'd have to get the dent hammered out in Atlanta the next time he went to see Marc. If he had the work done here, Betty was sure to find out, and then he would never hear the end of it.

It was a beautiful night, though. There were no lights this far out on the highway, and the woods gleamed whitely with the reflection of his own headlights. After all the Christmases he'd spent in Los Angeles, with its carolers on the beach and Christmas lights in the palm trees, he was glad it was snowing, even though he would have preferred to enjoy the beauty of the night from his living room window, with the gas under the ceramic logs turned up high.

He navigated the next series of switchbacks safely and found himself at length at the top of the ridge. The road was straight and level for the next five miles. He would be home in no time. Drifts of snow were piled in the forest close on either side of the highway. The sleet had stopped. Tiny snowflakes whirled down and lay on his windshield for an instant before melting from the heat of the defroster.

Up in the distance, his headlights picked out a pale form standing in the road. He took his foot off the gas and slowly rolled to a stop, snow crunching under his wheels. A fawn stood poised in the middle of the highway, white in his headlights. Arthur held his breath, waiting. Her ears twitched and turned back, and then she bounded away into the forest. Arthur felt light at heart as he drove on. In spite of the new dent in his car, he suddenly realized he was glad he had gone to the family Christmas party.

It had been years since he'd seen any of his cousins. Jerome, Linda and Eddie were all married now, Eddie for a second time, and they all had burgeoning families. Arthur had been a little nervous about all the children underfoot, but unlike the unruly offspring he encountered in restaurants and supermarkets in Los Angeles, his cousins' children were polite and reasonably well-behaved, even drunk as they were with Christmas excitement.

He had been sitting in an armchair by the fire, nursing a glass of port and feeling like Uncle Scrooge after his conversion, when one of the older children came up to him. She was a black-haired girl of eight or nine with serious brown eyes, and Arthur had noticed her earlier, sitting on the floor with her knees together and her feet turned out in opposite directions, patiently struggling to fit the batteries into her new Walkman.

"I asked my dad first, and he said it would be OK if I asked you something," she announced to Arthur, all in a rush.

"You can ask me anything you like. But may I ask you something first?"

Her dark eyes narrowed. "I guess so."

What's your name?"

She relaxed. "I'm Samantha. That's my dad over there." She pointed to Eddie, who was standing by the buffet table with his arm draped heavily around the shoulders of a tall, slender beauty with patently augmented cheekbones and breasts.

"It's nice to meet you, Samantha. My name's Arthur."

"I know. You're my second cousin, right? I figured it out." She counted on her fingers. "Your mom is gran'pa's sister, so you and my dad are first cousins, so you and me are second cousins." She smiled in triumph.

Arthur smiled back. "I'll take your word for it. I was never very good at figuring out family."

"My mom is. She writes books about it." A shadow passed over Samantha's face, and she bobbed her head in Eddie's direction. "That's not my mom. That's Phoebe. She's my dad's new wife."

"I see."

"Anyway, Gran'ma told Dad that you came back from Los Angeles to write a book, and I want to be a writer too, like my mom, so I was just wondering what your book's about."

"I guess you would call it a book of ghost stories."

"I love ghost stories! Are they real or made up?"

Arthur smiled. "Sometimes I wonder if there's really any difference."

Samantha considered this. "Does that mean you don't believe in ghosts?"

"Do you?"

"I'm not sure. I know a really scary story, though. Wanna hear it?"

"I'd love to. It's traditional to tell ghost stories at Christmas."

"I never knew that. All we ever tell is the baby Jesus story." Her face suddenly lit up. "Oh, I know. Like Scrooge, right?"

"That's right. I was just thinking about him. A Christmas Carol is one of my very favorite stories."

"I don't know if mine's as good as that," Samantha said, a little dubiously. "It's plenty scary, though."

"I can hardly wait to hear it."

"Are you sure you won't get scared?"

"Not while you're here with me."

"OK, then." She pulled up the ottoman and perched on it. "It's sort of about Camp Sequoia. That's where I went to day camp last summer. Do you know where I mean?"

"It's the scout camp above the dam, isn't it?"

"That's right," she agreed happily. "OK, this is the story. It used to be a long time ago that nobody but Cherokee Indians lived there. Then the pioneers came, and they made all the Indians move out west on the Trail of Tears. Have you heard of that? They all had to go to Kansas or some place."

"Oklahoma, I think. It was a very sad thing."

She nodded solemnly. "But you know what? Not all of them went away. There was one Cherokee brave and one Cherokee princess who didn't want to leave. So when all the other Indians left, they went and hid in a big, dark cave under the ridge. Years and years went by, and they just kept living there in that cave. And they lived there so long that their hair turned white, and their skin turned white, and their eyes turned white, and then they were blind, but it didn't matter, because they had lived in the dark for so long that they didn't need to see anymore."

Samantha took a deep breath and plunged on. "Then, some more people came along and built the dam, and it flooded the cave, but even that didn't matter, because they had lived in the dark so long they just turned into giant catfish, and swam around in the mud at the bottom of the lake.

"But then one day, a terrible, awful thing happened. The worst thing you could ever imagine. You know what it was?"

"What?"

"A fisherman came along, and he caught the Cherokee princess on his fishing line, and he took her home thinking she was just an ordinary catfish, and he fried her up, and he ate her." Samantha giggled with horror, then quickly covered her mouth with her hand.

"And then guess what happened. The fisherman went to bed that night, and way down by the lake he hears this really, really quiet voice, and it's whispering, 'Johnny's in the water, Johnny's in the sea, bring my wife back home to me.'"

"Uh oh," said Arthur

"So the fisherman pulled the blankets up over his head, but he could still hear that voice, and it was getting closer and closer, whispering, 'Johnny's in the water, Johnny's in the sea, bring my wife back home to me.' So he put the pillow over his head, and for a long time he didn't hear anything, and he thought it must have gone away. So then really really slowly he took the pillow off his head, and really, really slowly he pushed the blankets down, and you know what he saw? Standing right at the foot of the bed was a gigantic catfish man."

Samantha's voice dropped to a whisper. "And the catfish man said to him, 'Johnny's in the water, Johnny's in the sea, bring my wife back home to ME!"

She shouted the last gleefully, and threw her arms up. "Yikes!" Arthur flinched.

"Pretty scary, huh?" Samantha agreed, satisfied. "And the worst part is, the catfish man is still here, and that's why you should never ever take a boat out on the lake after dark, cause he might come and grab you and pull you down to the bottom of the lake."

Eddie's new wife had heard Samantha shout. She detached herself from Eddie and hurried across the room to them. "Is she bothering you? I'm so sorry. Sam, honey, leave the grown-ups alone."

Samantha quickly turned her face away.

"We're talking about writing," Arthur said, and put his hand on Samantha's shoulder to keep her from leaving. She darted a look of surprised gratitude up at him.

Phoebe merely looked puzzled. She pursed her collagen-enhanced lips, then finally said, still uncomprehending, "Well, that's very sweet of you. Have we been introduced yet? My name's Phoebe. I'm Sam's new mommmy."

~~~

Arthur realized abruptly that he was going much too fast for the icy road. He downshifted gingerly, and then the light erupted out of the woods.

At first he thought it must be the reflection of his own headlights on the snow, but as it grew brighter, spilling past the black trunks of the pine trees, he realized that the light was emanating from deep within the forest itself. It had to be the ridge lights, he thought, more pleased than alarmed. He hadn't seen them since his first night home.

The brilliance was uncanny. Shivering with awe, he dismissed all his theories of swamp gas or electrical fields. He brought his hand up to shade his eyes, and only then saw that there was something standing in the middle of the road.

He slammed on the brakes in pure reflex, knowing full well it was the wrong thing to do. A confused blur of tree trunks and snow flashed past the windshield as the car began to spin. Then it plunged trunk first into a drainage ditch and rolled over. The clamor of the wreck ceased with shocking suddenness, and everything was still, save for the whine of a spinning tire and the howl of the wind through the ice-laden trees.

CHAPTER 12: October Gardening

Arthur spent his first month in Riverbend unpacking and reviewing fifteen years of case notes. In the early days they had been laboriously typed on his old Selectric. Now they were saved on disk and stacked in little plastic boxes. Recorded in meticulous detail were the original witness statements and the results of his own investigations, the temperature changes and the magnetic fields, doors that opened or closed by themselves, cold drafts and electrical problems, mysterious lights and inexplicable noises, the nightmares and mood swings, shadows that seemed to linger even on the brightest days, a salt shaker that walked across a kitchen table in full view of half a dozen witnesses, and on one astonishing afternoon, smooth black pebbles that fell from a cloudless Southern California sky. Arthur found three of the pebbles sealed in a crumpled manila envelope.

In the heat of a promising investigation, he had always felt as though he were on the verge of discovering the secret of the universe. Turning the three pebbles in the palm of his hand now, it seemed to him that for all his investigations, he found nothing but a collection of oddities. No more meaning to them than a roomful of exhibits at the Ripley's Believe-It-Or-Not Museum in St. Augustine he had loved so much as a child. And none of it helped him in the early hours of the morning when he lay awake in bed, listening with bated breath to footsteps crossing his empty living room.

He could not imagine, now, why he had ever thought he could write a book here.

He never felt wholly alone in the cabin, even in broad daylight. He would hear a sudden, soft intake of breath very close at hand, or catch a fleeting reflection in the mirror when he closed the door to the medicine cabinet. He had to throw away the entire basket of apples he had brought home from the Burch's when he found every apple marked with deep, soft bruises, for all the world as though they had been roughly handled by someone with fingers of ice. When he cut one of the apples open, trying to salvage a slice or two, he found the bruises went all the way to the core, which was tender with rot.

When Arthur was in a good mood, he was amused by the dilemma of a ghost hunter made miserable by phantoms in his own home. He left the micro cassette recorder running throughout the night and took careful notes of his impressions, but he never heard anything definitive when he played back the tape.

He watched the days grow shorter with a resigned sense of impending doom. In good weather he spent all his daylight hours outside, walking in the woods or puttering in the yard around the cabin, much to the amusement of the gardeners. When the weather was bad, he accepted invitations from his Aunt Betty to meet in town for lunch or drive up to Chattanooga to visit galleries.

With a touching persistence, Robin kept asking him to come to dinner, or at least to see her studio. Arthur would have enjoyed spending time with her, but remembering that morning in town, the only time he had seen Charlie since returning to Riverbend, he always declined her invitations.

Robin had already gotten back into the cab of Charlie's pickup truck, and Marc was driving around to find a parking place. "Charlie--" Arthur began, but Charlie shook his head, glanced over his shoulder at Robin, then muttered in a voice that was low and quick with fury, "For god's sake, keep that pup of yours on a leash."

Arthur stared at him. "What did you say?"

"Just get that kid out of sight. Otherwise he's liable to find himself over the hood of Bobbie Jay's Caddy some Saturday night, getting his nuts taken off with wire cutters."

"My God," Arthur whispered. "What's the matter with you?"

"You been away a long time, Arthur. I don't think you remember which way the wind blows around here."

"Come on, Charlie," Robin called from the cab of the truck, "we're going to be late. You and Arthur can talk about your guy stuff some other time."

"Do you hate me that much?" Arthur asked miserably.

"Hate you?" Charlie gave a noisy bark of laughter, then finished in a harsh whisper, "Hell, Robin and I are both in love with you. Haven't you figured that out by now?"

~~~

One morning in late October, Arthur came home from the hardware store with a bargain bag of two hundred and fifty jonquil bulbs that looked as unprepossessing as a sack of shriveled onions, and spent the rest of the day laboriously peeling back strips of the turf in front of the cabin and planting the bulbs six inches deep, with a handful of bone meal to nourish each. Finding a dead starling in the yard, he picked up the pathetic huddle of feathers with his spade to bury it beneath a jonquil bulb. Only then did he see that its head was missing.

He came across the head later in the day lying half way across the yard. He buried it quickly, feeling unhappy in a foolish sort of way to know that the sightless black eyes had been on him all afternoon.

He heard the phone ringing as he was putting the last of the bulbs in the ground. He dropped the spade and sprinted across the yard and up the front steps, certain that Marc calling him. He crossed the living room, heedless of the mud he was tracking across the floor, and snatched up the phone.

"Yes? Hello?"

There was a moment of silence, then Robin said, laughing, "Well, hello to you, too."

Arthur sat down heavily, then remembering the dirt that had probably collected on the seat of his jeans, stood up again. "Hello Robin. How are you?"

"Just fine, thanks. But I'm sorry I'm not who you were expecting. Mike, is it? Or Mitch or something."

"Do you mean Marc?"

"Oh, of course. How's he doing? Is he adjusting to life in Atlanta?"

"I think so. I can't seem to break him of making fun of Southern accents, though."

"Well, just wait. By the time he gets out of med school he'll probably be talking like a good ole boy himself."

"I wouldn't be surprised."

"Well," Robin went on briskly, "I'm going to be firing up the furnaces tomorrow, and I was wondering if you would like to come out and see my studio."

"It's nice of you to ask--" Arthur said, beginning his practiced regrets, but Robin interrupted him.

"Now just listen to me a minute, before you turn me down again."

"I'm sorry our schedules haven't worked out."

"Knock it off, Arthur. I don't intend to let you disappear out of my life again without doing a thing about it. It's Charlie, isn't it? He said something to you when we saw you and your friend in town. I've tried to get him to tell me, but he--"

"Robin, don't."

"I guess he's not really as open minded as I wanted to believe, is he? Or maybe it was actually seeing your friend for the first time--something made him flip out, and I guess he said something awful to you."

"It doesn't matter, Robin. Please leave it alone."

"Don't be ridiculous," she scolded. "Of course it matters. Your feelings must be hurt, and I don't blame you a bit, but that's between you and Charlie. No, not even that. The way Charlie feels about you being gay is just Charlie's problem. It doesn't have anything to do with you and me. Damned if I'm going to lose an old friend just because my husband's stuck in the nineteenth century. It's not fair, Arthur. If you really don't want to see me anymore, that I can accept, even if I don't like it. But it's not fair to cross me out of your life just because of my husband."

"That was quite a speech," Arthur said gently.

"Wasn't it though? Now listen, some of my interns are coming down from the community college tomorrow, so it would be the perfect time for you to see the studio."

"You have interns?"

"That's what we call them. The students get a few hours of credit for mucking around with hot glass, and I get help with the manual labor side of my profession. You really should come over and meet them, Arthur They're sweet people, and they're all looking forward to meeting you."

"Why would they be doing that?"

"Well, I sort of hinted that you might be stopping by. So just drop by tomorrow afternoon, any old time. We'll all be thrilled to see you."

Arthur had no intention of accepting Robin's invitation. But Friday dawned rainy and cold, and standing on the front porch that morning, muffled up against the raw wind and drinking his first cup of coffee as he watched the mist roll down the hill from the big house, it occurred to him that Robin was right in one respect, at least. If there was any unfinished business between him and Charlie, it really had nothing to do with her.

He spent the morning reading case notes from a study of an apartment building from which deceased tenants never seemed to depart, and after a lunch of tomato soup and crackers, he ventured out.

Little had changed in the years since he had been to Charlie's home last. The underbrush seemed thicker in the woods in front of the house--Charlie's father had had always burned the woods every spring to drive away the copperheads--and the main barn had lost its last vestige of red paint, and stood gray and weathered as the leafless oaks that crowded nearby. There were no guineas pecking and scratching in the front yard anymore, but when Arthur pulled his car around back, a pack of dogs came loping out to meet him, barking with happy ferocity. He waited a few moments before getting out of the car, thinking Robin was sure to hear the racket and would come around to call them off, but when no one appeared from the house or the barns, he finally pushed open the car door and stepped out among them.

The dogs became hysterical with joy, bounding around him and thrusting their snouts under his hands, demanding attention. Arthur cautiously patted the head of the largest one, a woolly behemoth with a head as big as a typewriter. The vast jaws split into a happy canine grin before closing over Arthur's sleeve.

"Hey," Arthur complained, not very firmly. "Cut it out."

Evidently taking this as a sign that Arthur was eager to play, the dog dropped to the muddy ground, tugging and growling with mock fury, and dragging Arthur almost to his knees. His efforts to free himself were met with renewed growls of delight. The other two dogs jumped up to lick Arthur's face, yipping gleefully. He was beginning to wonder how he would get away without having to call, mortifyingly, for help, when another car drove around the barn and pulled up beside his. The three dogs abandoned him and ran off in a pack to accost their new prey.

The car was a ten year old Volvo station wagon with a bumper sticker on the back that read 'If you can't trust me with a choice, how can you trust me with a child?' The woman who got out wore jeans and a t-shirt, her long hair was coiled into elaborate braids. The dogs began whining, then turned tail and went loping off around the barn.

"Are you all right?" she asked Arthur, smiling a little. Her bare arms were a smooth, uniform brown, but she had freckles tiny as pinpricks scattered across her face.

"I'm fine. I'm glad you showed up when you did."

"Oh, they wouldn't have hurt you. You just have to be stern with them."

"Are you one of Robin's students? I was supposed to meet her here, but I don't know where she is."

"I'm sure everyone's in the studio. She converted the old hay barn, and it's absolutely huge. I can hardly imagine what I'd do with so much room." She looked at Arthur. "I guess space isn't a problem for you either, is it?"

"Pardon me?"

"How many acres does the Drake property have? You own the entire back side of the ridge, don't you?"

"I'm sorry," Arthur said. "I don't know your name."

"I think you know my family. I'm Leanne Kimble."

Her name meant nothing to him

"Oh, come on," she said a little shortly. "How many black people could you have known growing up on the ridge anyway?"

The light dawned, and Arthur was ashamed not have remembered at once. "Of course. George Kimble. He worked for Grandmother for years. Are you his daughter--no, his granddaughter."

"His granddaughter."

"It's such a pleasure to meet you," he said, wondering why he felt suddenly uneasy. "I'm sure the only reason the house is still standing is all the work he did on it. How is Mr. Kimble doing?"

"He died ten years ago."

"I'm sorry."

"My mother worked at Drake house too."

Arthur could remember a number of black faces that had come and gone up at the big house when he had been very young, but he couldn't put a name to any of them. "I don't think I remember her," he admitted.

"She wasn't there long. Less than six months. Her name was Clara."

Arthur winced a little at the use of the past tense, certain now that he was walking onto a mine field, and he said carefully, "You know, if there's something you want to say to me, I wish you had just called or stopped by the house, instead of ambushing me like this."

"I didn't ambush you."

"Are you the one who's been telling Robin to invite me to see her studio and meet her students?"

"So you expected me to just walk up and knock on your door?"

"Why not?"

She stared at him. "All right," she said finally. "I want to know if you remember anything at all about my mother. She started working at Drake House in the fall of 1962."

Arthur added the numbers in his head. "I would have been six then. Just turning seven. But I'm sorry. I don't think I remember her."

"I was nine months old when she died. I don't remember her either"

"What happened?"

"She disappeared."

Arthur blinked. "You mean she just vanished into thin air? Is this supposed to have happened while she was working at the house?"

Leanne leaned back against her car, looking down at her knuckles. "The only reason she even got the job was because of Granddaddy. She'd never worked as a maid before, and she was too young for one of the big places like Drake House anyway. But she wanted to save money so she could go back to school. My dad was a field secretary for the NAACP back then, and she thought she could be more help to him if she had her teaching certificate.

"So my great aunt moved in to look after me and Dad during the week. Mom only got to come home on the weekends. Dad would meet her at the gate house and drive her home every Friday night.

"And then one Friday night, she never came. My daddy sat out there waiting for her for hours, and when he finally went in to look for her, old Miz Virginia, pardon me, your grandmother--called the police and had him arrested."

Arthur swallowed. It sounded in character for his grandmother. "What happened?"

"They never found her."

"But you must have some idea."

"Oh, Dad knew what happened, all right. The NAACP was planning to file a lawsuit against the Commissioner of Bethel County, trying to get the poll tax abolished. So the good ole boys of Riverbend killed Mama and threw her body so far down the back side of the ridge nobody ever found her bones."

"Hey!"

A young man with long red hair and a tie-dyed T-shirt had come around the barn and was waving to them. "Robin was wondering if you guys were here yet. C'mon, Leanne, Robin's got about ten pounds of glass in the glory hole, and we need your help steadying the punte."

CHAPTER 13: Christmas Eve

A fine smattering of rough pebbles lay on Arthur's face. When he blinked and tried to turn his head, they pattered away, feeling cold and heavy as ice.

He opened his eyes.

Snow came drifting down through a shattered car window. The night sky was blank and starless. Arthur knew what must have happened, if only in a vague sort of way. Apparently his Aunt Betty was right, and he shouldn't have tried to drive home tonight.

The seat belt was hurting him, but he couldn't find the buckle to release it. He was unable to move his right arm, and his left felt strangely heavy when he reached down. He struggled for a few moments, but then had to stop, breathing hard with exhaustion. If the shoulder strap hadn't been pressing into his windpipe so painfully, he would have closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep.

What a hell of a mess. He'd be lucky if he weren't stuck out here all night.

CHAPTER 14: Glassworks

The rain had started again, roaring on the tin roof of the studio, and inside Robin presided over a scene of fire and chaos like one of Dante's minor demons in the upper rings of Hell. Arthur had never seen her like this, flushed and exuberant as she lifted and spun ever larger gobbets of molten glass. The heat from the furnaces was fierce, and the flames in the glory hole threw a fantastic glare upon the faces of Robin and her students. By the time the piece Robin was working on was close to assuming its final shape--a broad, shallow bowl with a shadow of blue running through it like the smoke from a dwindling fire--she and her students had become almost manic in their intensity.

Beside Leanne and the red-haired boy there was a third, a tall, thin boy with a pallid face, whose black jeans and flannel shirt were evidently intended to accent his pallor. Though the two boys never stopped talking and laughing, their voices were distant and inconsequential, all three students seeming to lose their individuality in the fires of creation.

Arthur simply stayed out of their way. He was trying to decide if Leanne's story could possibly be true, if a woman could have vanished into thin air from the grounds of Drake house. In the back of his mind, he suspected that he had been aware of something in a child's incomplete fashion, seeing the outlines of things without being able to comprehend their meanings.

He remembered George Kimble very clearly, at any rate. His father and grandmother had always called him Uncle George, and as a child Arthur had thought it meant he was a member of the family. Now the memory made him wince with shame.

Still, Mr. Kimble had always been kind to Arthur, who must have seemed a lonely child in that vast home. He remembered long summer days trailing after the caretaker, delighted with the little tasks Mr. Kimble would patiently dream up for him, nailing soft blocks of wood together, or gathering sticks, or sorting nuts and bolts.

And then George Kimble had been gone, and now that Arthur tried to pierce the mists of memory, it seemed to him that his going had been very sudden, and not spoken of. He had a clear memory of watching his grandmother in her sitting room one afternoon while she arranged the doings of the household like one of the darker and more severe Czarinas. Arthur had been trying in vain to screw up enough courage to frame a question.

But all these years later, he was no longer certain what he had wanted to ask her.

It must have been about that time that Arthur took to exploring the woods, wandering further and further from home, until finally his explorations took him to the pastures behind the Johnson farm where he met Charlie for the first time. Charlie had been riding a red shetland pony bareback across the pasture lands that ran dangerously close to the bluffs, and Arthur had been terrified, but absolutely enthralled. For the next decade, the two of them had been inseparable. And Arthur had never noticed that one of the kind dark faces who changed his bed linens and kept the bathrooms clean had vanished violently from his life.

~~~

When the piece was finished and laid in the kiln to cool, Robin and her three students collapsed. Leanne looked as flushed and happy as the others.

"So," said the red haired boy, "What's it like living in a haunted house?"

Robin grinned and shrugged at Arthur apologetically.

"Why do you ask?"

The redhead, whose name Arthur thought was Leo, though it had been hard to hear introductions over the roar of the gas furnaces, rolled his eyes towards the tin roof of the studio. "Man, everybody knows that place is haunted. The whole damn ridge is full of ghosts and monsters, don't you know that? I get tripped out just driving up here at night."

"What the hell are you talking about?" the boy in black said. "We come up here after dark all the time."

"It doesn't mean I don't freak."

"Do you mind?" Robin finally protested. "Some of us live up here, you know."

"Sorry, Rob," Leo apologized. "I didn't mean anything personal or nothing. It's just that some places have a real negative energy, you know?"

Robin remained severe. "No, I'm not sure that I do."

"You know what I mean, don't you?" Leo appealed to Arthur. "Robin's told us you're a ghostbuster. So you know some places just have really bad vibes, right?"

"In my experience, the more people insist that a site is intrinsically evil, the less likely it is I'll be able to substantiate the existence of any paranormal activity at all."

This took Leo a moment to figure out, but when he did, his tone became belligerent. "Yeah, well, what about the ridge lights? Lots of people have seen those. I'd like to hear you explain those away."

"Ghost lights are actually a fairly common phenomenon," Arthur said. "I don't know what's causing them here, but it could be minerals from the old coal mines creating the phosphorescence, or swamp gas, or even electrical fields generated by subterranean geological activity. I think the Blue Ridge fault runs within a few miles of us."

Robin leaned forward, her face alight with interest. "Arthur, I really wish you would talk to Charlie about this. He's been messed up about the ridge lights ever since we saw them."

"Wait, no way, man," Leo interrupted. "Swamp gas? Fault lines? Geez, I bet you don't believe in UFOs either."

Leanne had been sitting a little apart from the group, listening with a tolerant air. She smiled at Leo's last protest.

A sudden crack broke across the studio.

Robin's shoulders slumped. The boy in black slammed his fist down on the table. "Damn it to hell."

Arthur was the only person in the room who didn't know what had happened. Robin saw the look on his face, and with a rueful little smile she gestured him over to the kiln. She lifted the lid. Arthur looked in, shielding his face from the heat.

The glass bowl lay in three pieces.

"Oh, Robin. I'm so sorry." Arthur was a little shocked that so much energy and work could so suddenly come to nothing.

Robin shrugged philosophically. "It happens when they cool unevenly. It's a problem with these big pieces." She smiled. "So I try not to get too attached to them until they reach room temperature."

Leo and the boy in the black flannel shirt left a little while later, Leo flashing a peace sign to them on his way out. Robin walked Arthur and Leanne to their cars.

"Sorry about the bowl," Leanne said. "I know we'll get it next time." She smiled a conspiratorial smile at Arthur before climbing into the Volvo and pulling out with all the dogs barking frantically in her wake.

"So what's up with you two?" Robin asked.

Arthur shook his head. "She was telling me that some of her family used to work at Drake House. But this was all a long time ago."

"No kidding? It's a small world, isn't it?"

"It's a small town."

Robin looked up sharply at the tone in his voice. "I know I badgered you into coming today. But I was afraid otherwise I might never see you again."

"It was quite an experience, seeing you in your element. I never imagined."

She wrinkled her nose at him. "You're a dear heart. Are you sure you can't stay for dinner?"

"I don't think that would be a very good idea."

"Well, it just seems to me that once Charlie spent a little time with you, he'd see you're still the same old Arthur. But all right, if you won't, you won't," she finished cheerfully. "How do you know so much about ghost lights anyway?"

"It's the sort of thing that comes up in my line of work."

"I sure wish you could talk to Charlie. I think it would do him a world of good to get a sensible explanation. He's gotten so worked up about them he won't even leave the horses in the pasture anymore."

"I'd be glad to help if I could. But to be honest, I don't think Charlie would be very interested in anything I had to say to him."

~~~

The red Volvo wagon was parked beside the gatehouse, and Leanne sat waiting patiently, her long, thin arms crossed over the top of the steering wheel.

Arthur pulled up beside her and rolled down his window.

She smiled fleetingly. "You did say I should just stop by the house."

He didn't respond, and her expression hardened. "Or was that only before you know what I was here for?"

"Actually, I'm not sure I do know what you're here for. But if you're asking my permission to search the woods, you have it, of course," Arthur said evenly.

Leanne looked startled. "Search the woods? Looking for Mother's remains, you mean? But we're talking about twenty square miles."

"Closer to thirty."

"And just where do you think a part-time community college student is going to find the money for something like that?"

"I don't know. I thought the D.A.'s office would provide the manpower."

"The D.A.?" Leanne was incredulous. "Mother was no Medgar Evers. No one in this town would lift a finger to reopen that case, not even if I dug her bones up out of your cellar."

"And do you think that's very likely?"

"Look, if I've been a little tactless, I'm sorry, but you've got to understand, my whole life, I've had no reason to love the Drake family. Robin's got a lot of respect for you, though, and I respect Robin. So I thought maybe I could talk to you after all."

Arthur gripped the steering wheel tightly in both hands. "Leanne, what is it that you want from me?"

Her gaze was steady, but she couldn't keep the note of repressed hope out of her voice. "I just want Mother's things back."

CHAPTER 15: Closet Space

The lawn in front of the guest house was streaked with dead grass and clumps of mud, the aftermath of Arthur's gardening and of the afternoon showers.

"It's been thirty years," he reminded Leanne gently as they crossed the front walk. "I'm afraid anything your mother left behind would have been lost a long time ago."

Leanne hardly seemed to be listening to him. She was gazing up at the guest house so intently that Arthur glanced up too, a little afraid that something might be looking back at them. The windows were empty, reflecting only bare black trees and gray rain clouds.

"So this is where she lived?" Leanne finally asked.

"There were a couple of rooms on the third floor of the main house too, but I don't think anyone but Grandmother's nurses ever stayed there." Arthur opened the front door. "Would you like to come in?"

She hesitated for an instant before following him.

"My parents had the cabin redecorated years ago," he explained.

"How long ago?"

"I don't remember exactly. It was after my grandmother died."

"You must be glad they left this old paneling up. It's beautiful."

"I suppose it is, but sometimes it makes me feel like I'm living in a shoe box."

He led the way into the next room, past cases of his files and computer disks. "There's some closet space in the bedroom. But I'm almost certain it was empty when I moved in."

He opened the closet door, releasing the smell of cedar and fresh laundry. The interior was so narrow that his clothes all hung at a slight angle, the shoulders brushing both sides. There was no light. Arthur wrapped one arm around his shirts and swung them forward. "I didn't think there would be anything here."

"What's that?" Leanne stood on tiptoe and pointed to something on the top shelf.

Arthur reached cautiously up into the shadows, and his fingers brushed against cardboard and fabric. "I think it's a hatbox. It's heavy, though. I can't quite get it."

Leanne brought him the varnished pine footstool from the foot of the bed. "Can you reach it now?"

He climbed up and pulled the box to the edge of the shelf. "I've got it."

"What's in it?"

Arthur hesitated, wondering at his sudden reluctance. What did he expect to find anyway?

He lifted the box with a sudden angry resolve, but the weight of it caught him off guard. Slipping out of his hands, it crashed to the floor. Leanne gave a little yelp of surprise. Hundreds of glass marbles pattered noisily across the oak floor and into every corner of the room.

~~~

Arthur found the last two marbles under the bed, hidden in the middle of a dust bunny larger than his fist. Grimacing, he left the marbles where they were. He really ought to start sweeping the floor more regularly. He slid out from under the bed and saw Leanne dropping her own last handful of marbles back into the battered hat box.

"Sorry about all this," she said.

"It's all right."

"Your shirt is filthy."

He looked down at the dust smeared across his shirt front. "I guess my housekeeping leaves something to be desired."

She rocked back on her heels. "I don't suppose you have an attic in this place, do you?"

Arthur glanced at the bare roof beams. "Not much room for one."

"What about a basement?"

He shook his head.

"Are you sure? Not even a little cellar around back?"

Arthur looked at her sharply. "You're right. I'd forgotten."

"Would you mind if we looked there too?"

"Of course not," Arthur said, feeling a twitch at the corner of his mouth. He turned and stalked back through the cabin. "But we'll probably need a flashlight to see anything."

Leanne rummaged in her leather backpack, and showed him the palm-sized flashlight dangling on the end of her key chain.

The underbrush around the back of the cabin had begun to die back with the approach of winter, but the ivy growing up the stone walls was still dense, slick and shining deep green from the recent rain. Vines had grown over the cellar door in a thick green mat. Arthur pulled them down as best he could, scraping his knuckles against the stonework in the process. The vines scattered a spray of mortar, wood splinters and sandstone as they came down. Leanne hurriedly stepped out of the way.

The wood of the door posts was rotten, the hinges rusted into a solid orange mass. There was no lock. Arthur tugged optimistically on the beaten iron door handle. Nothing happened. Leanne took the top of the handle, and they pulled together.

With a wet, splintering sound, the rusted screws of the door plate suddenly pulled out of the rotten planks altogether.

"Oh, hell." In exasperation, Arthur slammed his foot against the door.

The lower hinges broke, and the cellar door fell inward at a crooked angle, releasing the thick, bittersweet odor of dust, rotten apples and mildew. Leanne handed him her key chain light.

Arthur ducked under the low frame, brushing the cobwebs away from his face, and held up the tiny flashlight. The wavering beam illuminated pale stone walls streaked by decades of spider webs. The raw-beamed ceiling was fretted with wasp nests, the dirt floor scattered with shrunken black lumps, the remains of apples stored here long ago. All that remained from the ancient apple crates were a few broken slats in the corner.

Arthur stepped aside so that Leanne could see that the cellar was otherwise empty. She shrugged, and he pulled the broken door shut behind him as best he could.

"Well," Leanne said. "I guess that only leaves the main house."

At the thought of exploring the stone cellars and vaulted attics of his childhood home, Arthur closed his eyes.

"And you did say there were servant's quarters on the third floor, didn't you?"

Arthur's nurse had lived in a comfortable little apartment behind the back staircase on the third story. On the rest of the floor were a long line of guest bedrooms, built in anticipation of weekend parties that, at least in Arthur's memory, had never materialized. His grandmother had spent the last five years of her life in the largest of the rooms, attended by an army of nurses and aides. But after his grandmother's death, there had been no need for anyone to go up to the third floor anymore, save for the maid who swept and dusted once a month. The bedroom doors were kept shut, the furniture covered with drop cloths, and when the sunlight began to slant across the polished oak floor in the late afternoon, the whitewashed corridor took on a bloody red luster.

"Hey," Leanne said, interrupting his thoughts. "Is something wrong?"

Arthur turned. "I can't take you up to the main house today. I'll need to speak to the tenants about it first."

"Will twenty-four hours notice be enough time? I'll stop by this time tomorrow."

"I don't know if that would be convenient for them. If you want to leave your number, I'll give you a call and let you know."

She stared at him for a moment, then she relaxed into a smile. She dug a notebook out of her backpack and scrawled her name and number on it. "I guess Robin was right about you after all."

Arthur stood on the front porch as she walked to her car. She looked back and said belatedly, "So anyway, thanks for going to so much trouble."

Dennis' gray Lexus came around the hill towards the carriage house as Leanne was driving away. There wasn't enough room for both cars, so Dennis eased to one side to let her drive past. Arthur saw him looking curiously after Leanne as she drove away. When Arthur went back inside, he noticed a sharp, musty smell, as though he and Leanne had stirred up more than dust in their cursory explorations. He got a broom and swept the entire cabin, but the atmosphere was still unpleasant when he had finished, so he found a mop and bucket on the utility porch and scrubbed the floors as well. The sweet detergent smell of Murphy's Wood Oil Soap did little to clear the air. In spite of the cold and the rain, he was tempted to throw open some windows.

When he awoke that morning before dawn, the house was utterly still, and the air was thick with the smell of rotting apples, sharp and overripe as cider.

CHAPTER 16: Christmas Eve

Arthur's fingers were so numb with cold that he didn't realize he'd finally found the seat belt buckle until he heard the click of the release and the shoulder strap whipped across his chest. His knee cracked the steering wheel at the same time his head hit the roof. He rolled forward into an awkward huddle, holding his breath to keep from screaming. The pain in his knee began to bloom like a flower. He was startled by the bray that escaped him when he finally opened his mouth. He tried to contain it, but his voice continued to rise in the night air, a ragged wail that went on and on until he ran out of breath.

He turned his head and looked out, trembling violently. There was a faint gleam in the darkness.

He blinked and looked again.

A pair of watery blue eyes gazed back at him.

CHAPTER 17:A Little More Than Kin

Although for years Arthur made a point of calling his parents at least every other week or so, he still had to listen to an elaborate, if only half-serious enumeration of his sins as a neglectful son every time he telephoned. He was less in the mood than ever for the inevitable lecture when he called today, but his mother surprised him.

"Arthur," she said in the no-nonsense tone she affected when there was an unpleasant task at hand. "I'm glad you called today. I'm afraid there's bad news. I've just had a call from your Aunt Betty about Billy and Ida Burch. You remember the Burch's, don't you? We used to see a lot them when you were little."

"I had dinner with them just a few weeks ago. I thought I'd told you."

"Oh dear, then I'm afraid this is going to be a shock."

"Is this about Mrs. Burch? I know she's been very sick."

"I'm so sorry to have to be the one to tell you this, sweetheart. Ida passed away last night."

The news itself hardly came as a surprise, but Arthur felt a stab of grief when he remembered the woman standing in her cluttered kitchen, patiently fixing her husband's iced tea. "I'm sorry," he said at last. "Do you know when the funeral will be?"

"So you're planning to go? Thank you, dear," his mother said without waiting for him to answer. "Someone from our family really ought to be there. You'll call Aunt Betty, won't you? She can tell you what time the service will be. And please remember to send flowers. Your father and I have already sent a spray, but it would be nice if you did too. Send them to the church, not the funeral home. Billy and Ida weren't going to First Baptist anymore, did you know that? They followed Reverend Humphry when he left and founded that Holiness Church on the back side of the ridge. You be sure and call Aunt Betty, hon. She can tell you how to get there."

And having disposed of the problem of Ida Burch's demise, April Drake announced that it was a beautiful day, and that she was going to rejoin Arthur's father on the beach and watch the Canadian geese flying south for the winter.

Arthur interrupted her before she could hang up. "Do you remember George Kimble?"

There was a moment of silence on the line. Then his mother laughed. "Uncle George was with our family for years, Arthur. But you were just a baby when he left."

"His daughter-in-law Clara worked as a maid up at the big house for a few months too, didn't she? I think I was six or seven at the time."

"That old," April said flatly. "Then I suppose you would remember Uncle George after all, wouldn't you?"

There was another silence. Arthur wondered if he were going to have to ask again, but then his mother burst out with, "Arthur, honey, I don't know what Billy and Ida may have said to you, but I want you to remember all this was a very long time ago, and the Burch's have had more than their fair share of tragedy since them. You can see how it would be easy for them to get confused."

At first Arthur couldn't understand why his mother was bringing up Billy and Ida Burch again. But then he remembered Billy's ranting about the sins of the father, and a suspicion came to him that was so wild and terrible he felt the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end.

Up until that moment, he had not honestly believed that Leanne's story could be true.

"Mother," he said slowly, "What did Mr. and Mrs. Burch know about Clara Kimble?"

"Well good heavens," April said with a nervous laugh, "The whole town knew about Clara Kimble. She was a pretty little thing--you know how they are sometimes--but flighty. Your grandmother never would have hired her except for Uncle George, and look what happened. Clara ran away with a railroad man. Left behind her husband without a thought in the world and caused us no end of trouble."

"What was his name?"

"What was whose name?" April asked a little impatiently.

"The railroad man. What was his name? Where did they go?"

"Oh honestly, Arthur. How would you expect me to know a thing like that?"

"Then how can you be sure what happened to Clara Kimble?"

"I don't think I care for the tone of your voice, young man," April said, and then tried to laugh to show she didn't mean it. "What's the matter with you today? I know you must be upset to hear about poor Ida Burch, but I don't appreciate you taking it out on your poor old mother."

"I'm sorry Mom, but I just want you to tell me the truth. If you don't know who the railroad man was, then how do you know what really happened?"

"Because if it wasn't him, it was some other handsome young buck on his way through town. Everybody knew about Clara. Everybody but her husband, I suppose. Isn't that the way it always is? Now I want to know who's been telling you stories about Clara Kimble."

"I've talked to her daughter, Leanne. She thinks her mother was lynched."

April gave a little shriek of mock horror. "Oh my goodness. You shouldn't even joke about such terrible things."

"I don't think Leanne is joking. I know I'm not. Why did Grandmother fire George Kimble after Clara disappeared?"

"How could you expect her to keep Uncle George on after something like that? You'd never feel completely comfortable around him again, would you?"

"Is that why Grandmother had Clara's husband arrested when he tried to look for her?"

"He was arrested because he was trespassing, Arthur. Now listen to me, dear. Things were different back then, and I'm sure you haven't heard the whole story. Uncle George may have been a good worker, but his son was a recruiter for the NAACP, though I'm sorry to say it, his daughter-in-law was no better than she should have been."

"Please stop it, mother. It was thirty years ago."

"Exactly, so I don't see why you want to drag up these old scandals. People get their feelings hurt, and there's just no point in it. Besides, it can be dangerous to start spreading old rumors again. You might end up in court charged with violating the civil rights of somebody who's been dead and gone more than thirty years, and I'd like for you to tell me how on earth you could be expected to defend yourself against something like that?"

"You do think Clara's dead then, don't you?"

She ignored the question. "It wouldn't surprise me a bit if Clara's daughter had ties with the NAACP too. I don't think you understand the kind of trouble those people could cause us. I know you probably voted for Bill Clinton, and I try to respect your political beliefs, but surely you don't want to cause problems for your family and all the people who love you, just because some agitator comes around with a half-baked story about a lynching that didn't take place thirty years ago."

"If nothing happened, then what kind of trouble could Leanne possibly cause?"

"Oh honey, " April said, sounding more sad than angry, "I know you had a difficult time growing up, and maybe we weren't the perfect parents, but your father and I both love you. We've always loved you. Why are you so bitter? Why do you resent your family so much?"

This was a very old argument. Arthur tried to stem the tide, but his mother was remorseless. "Your father and I were both so happy when you finally decided to move home. We thought it meant you were ready to stop running away, to accept your responsibilities. But you haven't changed at all. In fact, it sounds to me like you're ready to see everything your grandmother worked so hard for be leveled to the ground."

"You know that's not true."

"Then explain to me why you haven't been home two months before finding an excuse to start picking away at your grandmother's legacy. Everything you have now you owe to her. Is it too much to ask that you at least respect her memory?"

"I loved Grandmother. But that has nothing to do with this."

"Forgive me if I think that it does. Why aren't you married yet? You're not getting any younger, dear, and if you don't have children, can you imagine what will happen to the house? It'll probably be leveled for a mall. I can't believe you want to see that happen."

Arthur sighed. "I'm not going to get married, Mother. There aren't going to be any children. You know that."

"Well, you want to know what I think? I think you're just being selfish. You've never had to do an honest day's work in your life because of your grandmother's estate. I don't see that it's asking too much to expect you to finally give something back. Find some understanding woman who'll make a good hostess and a good mother, move into Drake House and produce an heir."

"You can't be serious."

"I'm sure I don't see why not. If you won't give up your little friend in Atlanta, then move him into the guest house. Tell everyone he's the family doctor, I don't care, but for once in your life I wish you'd try to think of someone besides yourself."


CHAPTER 18: Smoke

The power went out twice Saturday morning after he talked to his mother. The first time Arthur was in the middle of shaving. He pushed back the wooden shutters to let in the sunlight, but the woods behind the cabin were so thick nothing came through the window but a thin gray light that was dim and cool as dust. He finished shaving anyway, and accidentally scraped a long, shallow cut up the underside of his throat in the near dark. He was still trying to staunch the bleeding when the lights flickered back on.

The power went off again an hour later, while he was typing up his notes on the phenomena associated with Drake House. The computer screen flared brightly for an instant, and then the background slowly faded, leaving a glowing after-image of the letters.

He slammed his fist on the desk and got up. Usually he was able to take conversations with his mother in stride, but this morning's call had left him in a hopeless rage. The very air on the estate seemed tainted by old sins, festering for too long in the dark. He had to escape before they suffocated him.

He had already made plans to drive down to Atlanta today, hoping a few hours away from all this would help him put things in perspective. When he had finished packing, he made one last check through the cabin to make sure all the appliances were unplugged--the erratic power outages made him nervous--watered the African violet on the window sill above the kitchen sink, and plunged out the front door in such a hurry that he nearly ran into Gavin, who was just coming up the front steps.

"I'm sorry," Arthur said. "I was on my way out."

Gavin flashed his beautiful smile "I won't keep you. In fact, this can just wait to some other time."

Arthur stopped. "It's all right. Is something the matter?"

"No. Nothing. Really, it can wait. Dennis thinks it's none of my business anyway."

Arthur smiled a little. "Well, you have to tell me now."

"I always make such a big deal out of everything, don't I?" Gavin apologized. "But like I told Dennis, you never know, it might be important. It's about that woman Dennis saw you talking to yesterday. He didn't mean to be spying on you, but you were standing on the front porch, or she was just getting into her car or something when Dennis drove in. You know who I mean? The African-American woman."

"Her name's Leanne Kimble. Her family used to work on the estate."

Gavin winced apologetically. "I know it's none of my business, but are you sure about that?"

He was beginning to get a little tired of Gavin's self-deprecating mannerisms. He wondered how he got away with it at the office. Probably he just looked so damn good in his Versace suits that no one noticed what he actually said, Arthur thought irritably, and then felt a little ashamed of himself. It had been a bad morning.

"I'm sorry, Gavin, but what do you mean, am I sure? Sure of what? If you and Dennis have a problem with the people I invite onto the property, then I suppose we need to sit down and put something in writing about visitors. I hadn't realized it was a problem, but I'll be glad to try and accommodate whatever arrangements you think are necessary."

Gavin actually blushed. "It's nothing like that. Oh gosh, now I feel awful. I just wanted to let you know that she's been around here before. Maybe she mentioned it to you already, and I'm making a mountain out of a molehill."

"Before I moved back, you mean?"

Gavin nodded. "It was the middle of this summer. June or July, maybe. Dennis came out one morning and found her walking around back near the apple orchard. When he asked her what she was doing, she said that the realtor had sent her up to look around."

"That's not true," Arthur said. "Drake House isn't on the market. And even if it were, the realtor would never send someone up here without clearing it with you first."

"Well, that's what Dennis thought. Especially since your parents hadn't said a word to us about it. So Dennis told the woman that she was trespassing, and then she had the nerve to tell him she thought Drake House was open to the public. Dennis finally had to tell her flat out to get off the property before she would leave.

"So anyway," Gavin went on, "When Dennis told me she was back, I just thought maybe you should know about her being here before. But I guess if her family used to work here that would explain it," he trailed off doubtfully.

"I'm sorry you were bothered." Arthur said. "It won't happen again."

~~~

Arthur stopped to pick up the mail on his way out of town. In the middle of a stack of bills and credit card offers he found a hand-lettered envelope with a return address from Santa Monica, California. Smiling, he tossed the rest of his mail in the back seat and tore open the envelope. Inside was a note from an old colleague and fellow ghost hunter, and several pages xeroxed from a magazine article.

Hello Arthur!

And how is life in the wilds of Georgia? We are all lonely and blue here without you, but then I found this article in Fortean Times, and I realized how selfish I was being. It looks like Georgia needs ghostbusters too. Or at least a good cryptozoologist. Take care of yourself, and drop me a line when you take a break from hunting monsters.

Love, Lil

Arthur looked at the article, a list of anomalous humanoid sightings from the past year. Little gray men in the deserts of New Mexico, Big Foot sighting from Washington State, more of the same from the Ozarks and the Catskill Mountains, persistent rumors of a race of little people living in caves under the Andes, giants in the jungles of Laos, and even a winged man reported circling for hours above the ruins of Chernobyl by the light of a full moon.

And on the second page, Lil had highlighted with a yellow marker a short paragraph that was datelined Riverbend, Georgia.

According to the story, four teenagers parked on a lonely stretch of road in the Appalachian foothills were startled when a creature with grotesquely oversized hands and face suddenly appeared at the back window. The terrified driver tried repeatedly to start the engine while the beast pounded on the trunk and windows. Only when the creature seemed at length to lose interest and went loping off into the woods were they able to start the car and drive away.

None of the teenagers were able to describe its features when they reported the incident to the local police a few hours later.

Arthur carefully refolded the article with Lil's note, and laid it in the back seat with the other mail. At any other time, he would have been amused by such an account. This morning it simply made him more eager than ever to get out of town.

~~~

Marc's small apartment was thick with the smell of burning charcoal and grilled hamburger meat. He had kept the glass door to his minuscule balcony closed while he was barbecuing, but he kept forgetting things, and every time he slid open the door a crack to ask Arthur to bring him a spatula or the barbecue sauce, the smoke would come billowing in.

Arthur sat on a futon that was doubled up to make a low sofa. The only other furniture was a second hand desk where Marc had his computer, and a bilevel, kidney-shaped coffee table in flecked gold and green formica. "You wouldn't believe the garage sales they have over in Little Five Points," Marc told him excitedly as he pointed out his treasure. "There was a dinette set too, but with my car payments, I just couldn't afford it."

"And where exactly would you put a dinette set, even if you had it?"

Marc bristled. "This is a great place. And I don't need a lot of room. It's just me."

When they had first looked at the apartment, a high-rise set incongruously in the middle of a neighborhood of Victorian gingerbread houses, Arthur had been tactless enough to ask Marc why he thought needed to live in a building with a doorman and a marble fountain in the lobby. Especially since it meant he couldn't afford anything larger than this walk-in closet on the nineteenth floor.

Arthur's disapproval was all it took. Marc filled out a lease application on the spot.

But being here this evening, Arthur thought that Marc had been right after all. This apartment was a blank slate, with no character and no history other than what Marc chose to bring to it. He closed his eyes and could hear nothing but the faint rustle of Marc turning pages in a textbook, and the faraway rumble of traffic on the street below.

He laid his head back against the folded cotton batting, and slept until Marc flopped down heavily beside him and said, "Hey, wake up. I got a surprise for you."

Arthur stretched and yawned. "How long have I been asleep?"

"You were out like a light. It's after one. Aren't you getting any sleep up in Riverbend?"

"I'm sorry. I guess the drive down here tired me out."

"Right," Marc said skeptically. "What's this place on your neck?" He touched the scab on Arthur's throat.

"I cut myself shaving."

"Uh huh. You know something? It's a good thing I'm not the jealous type, or I might start to think you were spending your nights partying with Johnny Reb and his ten inch dick."

Arthur frowned. "Don't call Gavin that."

"Would a rose by any other name still smell as sweet?" Marc produced a video cassette from behind his back and held it out to Arthur. "I wanted to get Gestapo Boys, but the video stores around here are a little squeamish, so this is the best I could do."

"Oh no," Arthur said.

"Oh yes. I told you Gavin was Johnny Reb."

The video was titled A Midsummer Night's Steam. Smiling on the jacket photo was a nubile young blonde wearing nothing but sheepskin chaps and pointed ears that were evidently intended to impart a faunish quality. Though the picture was at least ten years old, and the model had been airbrushed and spotlit within an inch of his life, Arthur recognized him immediately.

"Oh my god." He took video from Marc. "It really is Gavin."

"Told you," Marc grinned delightedly. "Ready to see Mr. Corporate Lawyer in action?"

"Marc, I can't watch this."

"I was afraid you might have moral qualms, so I got us a little something." Marc jumped up and walked into the kitchenette. From the back of the silverware drawer he produced a zip-lock bag with a joint in it.

Arthur shook his head. "You haven't wasted any time making new friends, have you?"

"Are you kidding? I never met so many potheads in my life. I think half the people in med school are just here to get their own prescription pads." He slid open the door to the balcony and turned on the ceiling fan. "So are you sure you don't want to watch? Not even just to see if Gavin keeps the pointed ears on?"

"I don't think so."

"You have to pay me back for renting it, then. Seven bucks for one night, can you believe what a rip that is?" Marc lit the joint. The hot, acrid smoke mingled with the smell of charcoal and barbecued meat.

Arthur got up and walked to the balcony for a breath of fresh air.

Marc followed him, holding out the joint. "Here, take it before it goes out."

"No. It would just make me paranoid."

"Uh huh." Marc took a long drag and held it, looking at Arthur thoughtfully. Smoke began to dribble from his nose and lips. "You want to talk about what's going on up at Dracula's Castle these days?"

Arthur shook his head helplessly. "Believe me. You don't want to know."

Marc stubbed the joint out on the outside wall of the balcony. "Fine. You don't want to tell me what's got you so weirded out, I guess I'll just go put that tape in the VCR, and find out for once and for all whether Gavin boogies with his little Spock ears on."

continued

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