1Something wrong here, a cold whisper ofevil.
The house was a modernist relic, glass and stoneand redwood, sixty years old and gone creaky; not allhaunted houses were Victorian. Sometimes at night,when she was alone, she’d feel a sudden coolness, asthough somebody, or some thing, had just slipped by.This was different. She couldn’t pin it down, but it waspalpable.
She thought about stepping back into the garage.
“Who’s there?” she called. She got nothing back butan echo. The house was dark, except for desk lamps in thefront room and in the study, which were triggered byphotocells at dusk. She could hear the furnace running.Nothing else—but the hair on her forearms and theback of her neck stood upright. Some atavistic sensewas picking up a threat.
She looked to her right. The arming light on thesecurity panel was steady, so the security system hadbeen disarmed. That was decisive. The house shouldbe empty, the security system should be armed.
She stepped back, moving quickly, around the noseof the Jaguar to the Mercedes. She yanked open thedriver’s-side door, reached under the front seat to thestorage bin, popped the lid, and lifted out the Ladysmith.38.
Stood listening again, the gun cool in her hand, andheavy. Couldn’t even hear the furnace, now. The Mercedes’sengine pinged, cooling down. The overhead garagelights were still on and she watched the door to thehouse. Something wrong, but the house felt empty.
Her nose twitched. She could smell exhaust fromthe car, but when she’d stepped through the door tothe house, there’d been something else. A subtlestink that shouldn’t have been there. Not sweat, notbody odor, not perfume, not flatulence, but somethingorganic. Meat?
She had her purse over her shoulder, her cell phoneright there. Call the police? What would she tell them?That something was not right? That something smelleda little funky? They’d think she was crazy.
She put her purse on the hood of the Jag, held thegun in front of her, like the handgun instructor hadshown her. She was an athlete, and a professional athleteat that: swimming, dance, martial arts, weights,Pilates, yoga. The hard stuff: her body control was nearlyperfect. She’d shot the eyes out of the gun- instructor’sbad- guy target.
He’d been mildly impressed, but only mildly. A copfor most of his life, he’d told her that every shootinghe’d ever seen had been a screwup.
“The question is not whether you can hit somethingat seven yards. The question is whether you can sortout all the problems, when you’ve got a loaded gun inyour hand,” he’d said, a rehearsed speech that mighthave been written on a 3×5 card. “You have no time,but you have to figure out what’s happening—what’sgoing on. To shoot or not to shoot: it all comes down toa tenth of a second, in the dark. You don’t want to shootyour kid or a neighbor. You don’t want to not shoot ajunkie with a butcher knife coming for your throat.”There wouldn’t be a neighbor in the house.The neighborhood was private, standoffish. People drewtheir friends from their businesses, from their schools,not from the street. The house keeper was long gone.
Her daughter? Frances had the security code but shealways called ahead.
She called out: “Francie?”
Again, louder. “Fran? Are you there?”
Starting to feel foolish, now. Then she rememberedwhat the gun instructor had told her. “About the timeyou start to feel like an idiot, that’s when they’ll getyou. If you’re scared enough to have the gun out, thenthe situation is serious enough that you can’t beabashed.”
She remembered the word. Abashed. Was sheabashed? She was back at the door. Kept the muzzle of thegun pointing straight ahead, called out, “Frances, I’vegot a gun, because I’m scared. Don’t jump out, if thisis a joke. Frances?”
She let go of the gun with her left hand, reachedaround the doorjamb, and flicked on the lights. Theentry was clear and, as far as she could see, the kitchen.She was inside now, the house still giving off the emptyfeel. Edged forward.
The hair on her arms was up again and she reachedinside the kitchen door and hit another block of lights.They came on all at once, three circuits’ worth, fifteenlights in all, the kitchen as brightly lit as a stage. Sheglanced behind her, at the garage, then back towardthe dark door beyond the kitchen.
Not right; a few lizard- brain cells were screaming ather. Not right.
“Frances? Fran? Are you there? Helen? Are you stillhere, Helen?” Helen was the house keeper.
No answer. She let the gun drop to her side. Then,remembering what the cop said, brought it back up,and let the muzzle lead her through the house. Halfwaythrough, she knew she was alone. There was notension in the air, no vibration. She cleared the lastbedroom, exhaled, smiled at her own foolishness.
This hadn’t happened before. There was something. . . She got to the kitchen, sniffed, and lookedaround. Put the gun on the counter, opened the refrigerator,pulled out the bag of pre- cut celery sticks, tookout two and crunched them.
Huh. Alyssa Austin leaned against the counter, asmall woman, blond, fair-complected, but not delicate:she had a physical density to her face and hands thatsuggested the martial arts, or an extreme level of exercise.She looked at the gun on the counter, and half-smiled;it was dark and curved and weighted withpresence, like a successful work of art.
She was finishing the second celery stick when shenoticed the dark streaks on the wallpaper at the edge ofthe hall that led from the kitchen to the dining room.The streaks were broom- straw- length and - breadth,splaying out from a center, dark but not black, like flowerpetals, or a slash from a watercolor brush. Not knowingexactly why, she stepped over and touched them—and felt the tackiness under her finger.
Pulled her finger back and found a spot of crimson.She knew instantly and without a doubt that it was blood,and relatively fresh. Saw a small, thinner streak fartherdown the wall. Backed away . . . Scared now, picked up the gun, backed intothe kitchen, groped for the phone, punched in 9- 1- 1.She did it with a bloody finger, not realizing, leavingred dots on the keys.
The operator, an efficient- sounding woman, asked, “Is this an emergency?”
“There’s blood in my house,” she said. “
Are you in danger?” the operator asked.
“No, I don’t . . . I don’t . . .”
“Is this Mrs. Austin?”
“Yes.” She didn’t know how the operator had gottenher name, didn’t think about it. “I just came home.”
“Go someplace safe, close by.”
“I need the police.”
“We are already on the way,” the operator said. “Officers will be there in about a minute. Are you safe?”
“I uh . . . don’t know.” She thought, The police. Ishould put the gun away. “Tell them . . . Tell them I’mgoing to the garage. I’m going to lock myself in thecar. The garage door is up.”
“Okay. That would be good,” the operator said.“Don’t hang up. Just drop the phone and go to the car.We should be there in less than a minute now.”
She dropped the phone and backed toward the garage.
She could hear sirens in the distance—and not anotherthing. The cops went in with guns in their hands,cleared the house, looked at the blood and called fora crime- scene crew.
Alyssa went looking for her house keeper, and foundher. Helen was utterly confused by the blood; it hadn’tbeen there when she left.
The crime- scene crew, from the Minnesota Bureauof Criminal Apprehension, spent two days in the house.They found more signs of blood, on the tiles in thekitchen and hallway, enough that it had apparentlybeen mopped up. Alyssa and the cops spent the nexttwo days looking for Frances. They found her car,found her last grocery list, but they never could findher. Then the blood tests came back from the lab: itwas Frances’s blood, all right.
According to the lab techs, there’d been a pool ofblood on the floor, which had been cleaned up with aproduct called Scrubbing Bubbles bathroom cleanerand paper towels—there were little spit- ball, or blood-ball,remnants from the towels stuck in the cracks ofthe Mexican tiles. The blood spatters on the wall hadsimply been missed by the killer or killers, who hadn’tnoticed the thin sprays of blood entwined in the floralpattern of the wallpaper.
Frances was gone, and probably dead, and they allknew it.
Alyssa cried, sporadically and unpredictably, for fourweeks, caught in the bureaucracy of mysterious death,a slow- motion nightmare.
No body, just the blood—and the cops comingaround, and the reporters, and the cameras, and then thelawyers and the accountants, trying to work through thelaw. What to do about Frances’s car? I’m sorry to have toask at a time like this but Frances’s belongings are still in theapartment, and if she’s not going to be able to pay the rentnext month we have a young couple who are looking . . .When her husband, Hunter, had been killed,he’d managed to die with his typical neatness. Trustsin order, will in place, lists of assets and debts, a file ofreal estate holdings, careful records of stock- purchasedates, garnished with instructions for everybody. He’dbeen a control freak right to the end. He’d probablynever felt a thing, his silly seaplane dropping like a rockinto the Ontario woods, witnesses all around.
When he’d died, she’d been stricken, but had recovered,and knew even on the day of his death that shewould recover. They were married, but they’d beenpsychologically split for years, living separate lives inseparate rooms; with a little sex now and then.Frances, though, was different.
She hadn’t had her life yet; she hadn’t died—if shewere dead—doing something voluntarily. And she wasAlyssa’s blood. What ever their conflicts—and they’dmostly concerned the father and husband, Hunter—theywould have been worked through. They only neededtime, and they hadn’t gotten it.
So Alyssa cried, short violent jags at unexpectedmoments. And she looked for her daughter, the onlyways she knew: she called people, politicians, who calledthe cops, who whispered back that something was goingon here. . . . The politicians apologized and temporizedand shuffled away. She’d become a liability.
And she looked in the stars. She did her astrologicalcharts, using the latest software, she talked with a masteron the East Coast, who wondered aloud if Francesmight still be alive. His chart for the girl showed a passageof darkness, but not death. Nothing that big.
“It’s a possibility that has to be examined,” he said,in tones portentous even for a wizard of the Zodiac. “Isee an instability, a hovering, a waiting . . .”
The cards said the same thing. Alyssa had picked upthe tarot as a teenager, believed in the cards, used themat all- important business junctures—and she’d done sowell. So well.
And though the cards and the stars agreed thatFrances, or some part of her, remained in this sphere,there was never a sign of her. The burden, the insanity of it all, was crushing.Alyssa lived on Xanax and, at night, on Ambien. Thenshe began to take Xanax to lay down a base for the Ambien;and then a glass of wine as a base for the Xanax, asa base for the Ambien; and still she didn’t sleep.
She rolled and turned and her mind cranked twentyfourhours a day, a long circle of jangled thoughts.Sometimes, during the day, from the corner of her eye,she’d see Frances sitting on a couch. She’d come downstairsin the middle of the night, having heard Fran’smusic playing on the stereo, only to have it fade as shecame closer.
She felt cool breezes where there should be no drafts,as though someone had walked past her. And she sawomens. Crows on a fence, symbols of death, staring ather unafraid, but mute. A fireball in the sky, when shehappened to be thinking of Frances. Fran’s face incrowds, always turning away from her, and gone whenshe hurried to them.
Was Frances alive? Or dead?
Or somewhere in between?Fairy had some of the answers, or believed shedid.
Alyssa was a blond, good- hearted, New Age modernwoman. Fairy was dark, obsessive, Pre- Raphaelite—and where Alyssa floundered, trying to comprehend,Fairy knew in a moment what had happened to Frances,and focused on revenge.
Fairy stepped out of the shower, toweled off as shewalked into the bedroom. When she was dry, she threwthe towel on the bed and chose Obsession from the rowof perfume bottles on the dressing table. She touchedthe bottle to her neck and the top of her breasts, judgingherself in the dressing mirror as she did.
She didn’t call herself Fairy; others did. But itfit—with a pair of gossamer wings, she could have beenTinker Bell’s evil twin.
Then Loren appeared. “Looking good. Really, reallygood. Your ass is . . .”
“I don’t have time to fool around, I’ve got to getdressed,” Fairy said. “But you can watch me.”
“I know, time to go,” Loren said. “I’ll watch youundress, later.”
She looked straight into his hungry dark eyes, pattedher breasts with the flats of her fingers, fluffing upher nipples, and got dressed: black panty hose, a lightthermal vest for warmth, a soft black skirt, a black silkblouse threaded with scarlet, tight over the vest. Back tothe mirror, she painted on the lipstick, dark as raw liver,penciled her eyebrows, touched up her lashes; smackedher lips like women do, adjusting everything. Arrangedthe fall of the hair: like a black waterfall around hershoulders.
“That’s what you get, when you sleep with an aesthete.”
Fairy walked back to the dressing closet and tookout the short black leather jacket, pulled it on: thejacket gave her shoulders, and a stance. Two- inch blackheels gave her height. Ready now.
“The knife?” Loren asked.
“Here.” She touched the breast pocket on the jacket;could feel it in there, new from Target, hard black plasticand soft gray steel, sharpened to a razor’s edge.
“Then—let’s go.” Loren smiled, teeth flashing, hisface a white oval above his dark clothing, and Fairyreached out, took his hand, and they went.
Loren was the one who’d found Frances’s killers;together they’d scoured her laptop, her photographs—thousands of them, taken with a cell phone and a point-and-shoot Nikon, some of them stored electronically,but hundreds of them printed out, stacked in baskets,stuck to the front of her refrigerator, piled in drawers: arecord of her life, from which the killers emerged.
There were three: “I can actually feel her hand ontheir shoulders,” he told her. “These are the people whodid it.”
The three were scattered through the stacks of photos,but they were all together in one of them. Thephoto had been taken at a party of some kind, thethree people peering at the camera, laughing.
“You’re sure?” Fairy asked.
“Never more. Blood on their hands, missus,” hesaid.
“I want them,” she said.
“Revenge,” he said. He smacked his lips. “It’s sosweet; revenge tastes like orange juice and champagne.”
Fairy laughed at the metaphor and said, “Everythingwith you goes back to the senses, doesn’t it? Sight,sound, touch, taste, smell . . .”
“That’s all there is, missus. . . .” THEY BOUGHT A car to hunt from—bought it at aroadside person- to- person sales spot, along Highway36. Gave the seller an envelope full of cash, drove awayin the car, an aging Honda Prelude. Never registeredthe change, never bought insurance; kept it out of sight.
They began to scout, to make schedules, to watch.Early on, it became apparent that the bartender was atthe center of the plot—the fulcrum of Frances’s Gothworld. He took in people, places, events, and plans, andpassed them on. He knew what was happening, knewthe history.
Fairy talked to him three times: once on the sidewalk,when he passed her, looking her over, and shepassed by and then turned and called, “Excuse me, areyou Mr. Ford?”
He walked back to her and grinned, shoulders up,hands tucked in his jeans pockets. A charmer. “Yeah.Have I seen you around?”
“I was over at the A1 a few weeks ago with FrancesAustin,” Fairy said. “Did you hear about her?”
“I did. There’s been a lot of talk.”
“I can’t imagine what happened,” Fairy said, shakingher head. “Some people say drugs, some people sayshe must have had a secret lover.”
“She used to smoke a little, I know that,” Ford said.“But . . . I’m not sure she even had her own dealer. Shedidn’t smoke that much. I can’t believe it was drugs.Must’ve been something else.”
“The police think . . . I don’t know. Because shewas one of us”—Fairy patted her black blouse—“thatmaybe somebody sent her to the other side, to see . . .what would happen.”
“Well, that’s scary,” Ford said. “What’s your name?”
She made up the name on the spot: “Mary. Janson.Mary Janson.” They shook hands. “Some of the peoplehave tried to get in touch with her. On the other side.”
Ford’s eyebrows went up, and he smiled. “No luck,huh?”
“You don’t believe?”
“Oh, you know. I used to, I guess. Used to talkabout it, anyway. With me, it’s more of a hang- outthing,” he said. He looked away. “I used to listen tothe people talk about . . . you know. Life, death, crossingover. It’s interesting, but, I don’t know. Too depressing,if you do it for a long time.”
Fairy shook her head again, the black hair swirlingaround her shoulders: “It bothers me so much. If Icould find out why she’s gone, what happened to her,I’d be fine. I could sleep.”
Ford leaned closer to her: “If you want my opinion,it was a money deal.”
“A money deal?”
“You knew her pretty well?” Ford asked.
“I did,” Fairy said.
“Then you gotta know she was rich.”
“I knew she was well- off.”
“Rich,” Ford insisted. “She told me that when herfather was killed, she inherited, like, two million. Shealready had money from trusts her parents set up whenshe was small. She said they put in, like, ten thousandeach, every year; during all those big stock marketboom times in the nineties, she had a million of herown, before she inherited. So I know she had thatmuch.”
“A lot more than I knew,” Fairy said.
“We joked about starting a club,” Ford said. Hiseyes drifted away, seeing another reality. “She’d back it,I’d run it. We’d bring in some dark music; change thescene around here. It would have been a moneymaker.”
“Sounds wonderful,” Fairy said.
A rueful smile: “Yeah: she gets killed, and my lifeflashes in front of my eyes.” Ford looked at his watch:“Shoot. I gotta go, I’m late for work. Are you going tobe around? Mary Janson?”
“I’ll be around,” Fairy said.
He leaned closer again. “You smell wonderful.”
She twiddled her fingers at him, and went on herway. “I’ll see you at the A1.” Loren had been leaning against an old elm, listening.He caught Fairy down the sidewalk and said,“You smell wonderful.”
“You heard what he said.”
“Money,” she said. They seemed, now, to pick thingsout of each other’s minds.
“She must’ve talked it around,” Loren said. “Youknow how she liked to talk—and so, what happened is,she got some of these people all cranked up about startinga club, a new scene, but you know how conservativeshe really was; so it comes to the moment when shehas to produce the cash, and she backs away.”
Fairy frowned: “How do you know so much abouther?”
“Why, from you,” Loren said. “All you do is talkabout her. All day, all the time.”Back home, in bed, they made love in his cold,frantic way. Loren’s fingernails were an inch long, leftscratches on her rib cage and thighs. And afterward,she said, “Ford knows.”
“Yes, he does. We should see him again; and someof the others. Patricia . . .”
“I don’t think she’d be involved,” Fairy said, tentatively.
“She’s involved,” Loren said, sitting up, the sheetsfalling to his waist, showing off his rib cage. His bodywas slender as a rake. “I can feel it. She was jealous ofFrances. Her parents broke up, they don’t care whethershe lives or dies. She’s over there by herself, nothing todo, no place to go. Frances had two parents who lovedher, and the money. So the fat girl gets involved inthis club thing, she’s going to be cool, she’s going tobe a club own er, or operator, hang out with the bands . . .and Frances finally says she can’t have it. Can’t haveany of it. Jealousy and hate.”
“For sure,” Loren said. “As far as I’m concerned,she’s on the list.”
“We have more scouting,” Fairy said. “We haveDick Ford, we have Roy Carter, and Patty . . .”
“So we take a week, and think. Then we move again.If we don’t, the energy will fritter away. Just fritteraway.” She talked to Ford again, for ten minutes, at theA1, passing through. And finally, a third time, just atclosing. Went to the bar, drank a beer, and he touchedher hand, and touched it again, and the knife was likethe Sword of Freya in her belt. When she finished thebeer, as Ford was calling to the patrons to “Drink upand go home,” she drifted out the back door and lookedback, caught his eyes with hers. The alley was paved with red bricks, covered withthe grime of a century of wear; she wanted to lean onsomething while she waited, but everything was dirty,so instead, she wandered in little circles, rocked backand forth, hoping that nobody else would come throughthe door.
A thought: I could leave right now. She could leave,and nothing would happen. She could sell the car—ornot, who’d care?—and be done with it.
She toyed with the thought, then let it drift away.Dropped her hand to the knife. She’d spent some timewith it, sharpening the edge until it was like a razor.She yawned: nervous.
Then Ford came through the door. He might haveworked on his smile, inside, in the restroom mirror,because it was perfect—an effort to generate a bit of wrycharm, in an uncertain situation with a good- lookingwoman. “So, what’s up?”
He was wearing a leather jacket, unzipped, whichwas good, and beneath it, a canvas shirt. She got closeand let him feel her smallness, her cuddliness, while herright hand slid along the handle of the knife. “I can’tstay away from the Frances Austin thing,” she said. “Ithought you . . . could tell me about it.”
“Frances Austin?” He frowned: not what he expected.“You’re sort of stuck on that, huh?”
There was one light in the alley, and they were almostbeneath it. She caught a corner of his jacket sleeve,and tugged him closer to the open end of the alley, towardthe street, but deeper into the dark. Turned him,set him up against the wall, pressed into him, said,“You were her friend. You must have some ideas aboutwhat happened.”
“No, I really don’t. . . . Not so much.”
She whispered, “Don’t give me that bullshit,” andshe jammed the knife into his gut, just about at thenavel, and then, as she’d imagined it, pulled it up towardhis heart, the blade cutting more easily than she’dexpected, and she put all her muscle into it, up on hertiptoes, using both hands on the knife handle. Fordswung his arms at her, but they were soft and straight,like zombie arms, uncoordinated, shock with pain, andshe moved around them and pulled on the knife, pulledit up to his breastbone, and then out.
He slumped back against the dirty wall, staring ather, made gargling sounds, his hands stretching downtoward the earth, and then he slumped over sidewaysand fell on his side, and spewed blood.
She squatted, listened to him die, then wiped theknife on his shirt and spit on him: “That’s for Frances,”she said.
She walked away, down the empty alley, carryingthe knife. Got in the car, drove six blocks in silence,until Loren said, “He’s gone. I felt him go.”
“Why?” But she pulled over.
“Because I’m gonna fuck you,” Loren said.
And he did, and when the orgasm washed over her,it smelled purely of fresh blood.