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House of Many Shadows
By Barbara Michaels
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Barbara Michaels
All right reserved.
The sounds bothered meg most. calling them auditory hallucinations helped a little--a phenomenon is less alarming when it has a proper, technical name. Meg had always thought of hallucinations as something one saw. She had those too, but for some illogical reason it was easier for her to accept visual illusions as nonreal than to ignore the hallucinatory sounds. When you were concentrating on typing a letter, and a voice said something in your ear, it was impossible not to be distracted.
The problem was hard to explain, and Meg wasn't doing a good job of explaining. But then it had always been difficult to explain anything to Sylvia. Sylvia knew all the answers.
Meg tried again.
"The dictaphone was absolutely impossible. I couldn't hear what Mr. Phillips had said. Voices kept mumbling, drowning out his voice. Once the whole Mormon Tabernacle Choir cut out the second paragraph of a very important memo."
She smiled as she spoke. It sounded funny now, but at the time it had not been at all amusing.
Sylvia didn't smile. "The Mormon Tabernacle Choir? Why them?"
Meg shrugged helplessly. "No reason. That's the point; they are meaningless hallucinations. The doctor says they'll go away eventually, but in the meantime. . . . Mr. Phillips was very nice about it, he said he'd try to find an opening for me when I'm readyto work again, but I couldn't expect him to keep me on. I had to listen to some of those tapes three times before I got the message clear, and there was always the chance I'd miss something important. And I'd already used up all my sick leave. Three weeks in the hospital . . ."
"You should be thankful you weren't killed," said Sylvia. "To think they never caught the man who was driving the car! New York is an absolute jungle. I don't know how you can stand living here. May I have another cup of tea?"
Meg poured, biting back an irritated retort. She couldn't afford to offend Sylvia, especially now, when she was about to ask a favor, but the clichés that were Sylvia's sole means of communication had never annoyed her more. Why should she be thankful she hadn't been killed? She might just as well be thankful she didn't have leprosy, or seven-year itch; or thank God because she had not been born with two heads. It was just as reasonable, and a lot more human, to feel vexation instead of gratitude. Why me, God? The old question, to which there was never any answer. . . . Why did it have to be me in the path of that fool driver; why did I have to land on my head instead of some less vulnerable part of my anatomy; and why, oh, why, God, did I have to have these exotic symptoms instead of a nice simple concussion? Why do I have to be the poor relation, with no savings to fall back on, while Sylvia . . .
Sylvia's close-set gray eyes were intent on the teapot. "Such a nice piece of silver," she murmured.
The tea set was the only valuable thing Meg owned--the only family heirloom her parents had left her. The rest of the apartment was furnished with leftovers and makeshifts--colorful posters instead of paintings, remnants turned into curtains and patchwork cushions, secondhand furniture painted and refinished by Meg herself. It was attractive, because Meg was accustomed to making do, but it was not at all the ambience to which Sylvia was accustomed. And trust Sylvia to pick out the only object of value in the place! She had the old acquisitive gleam in her eyes; it was the only emotion that ever warmed their coldness.
Sylvia's left hand was half buried in the luxurious softness of the sable cape that lay beside her on the couch. She had refused Meg's offer to hang it up; and indeed, the thought of that smoky elegance hanging between Meg's worn trenchcoat and six-year-old fake leopard was rather incongruous.
As she had so often done, Meg studied her second cousin once removed with incredulity. How had Sylvia done it? Three husbands, all wealthy men, one of them a multimillionaire. If Sylvia had been the conventional sexpot, svelte and blond and heavy-eyed, it wouldn't have been so hard to understand. But Sylvia looked like the kind of woman who walked the aisles of the supermarket with a little hand computer, ticking off the prices as she filled her shopping cart. Her hair was nicely tended, but frankly gray; the sables and the expensive suit didn't conceal the dumpiness of her figure. Sylvia wore glasses--pale-blue frames with little rhinestones set in them. As she bent over the plate on which Meg had arranged a few cookies, Meg watched her curiously, seeking something--some warmth of kindness or flicker of wit--and found nothing. With a sigh, she gave it up. Sylvia had her good points, but none of them seemed likely to attract a man, much less a millionaire. They were points that might be useful to an indigent relative, however.
"Manhattan isn't the best place in the world to live in," she said. "In fact, the doctors say it's a bad place for me just now. Apparently this--this condition will clear up more quickly if I have rest and quiet."
"You won't get it here," Sylvia said complacently. "The noise level is enough to send anybody off her rocker."
"I need your help," Meg said abruptly. "I hate to ask you, Sylvia . . ."
"Naturally you do," Sylvia said, looking up. Her plain, lined face was relaxed, and Meg knew her comment referred to the first part of the appeal, not to the second. If Sylvia was without imagination, she was equally without malice.
"I've been thinking what would be best," Sylvia went on. "I don't suppose the doctor gave you any idea how long this will last? No, they never do, do they? Well. . . . Six months, perhaps? Yes, I should think six months would do it."
Excerpted from House of Many Shadows by Barbara Michaels Copyright © 2006 by Barbara Michaels. Excerpted by permission.
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