Blackwood farm, p.12

Blackwood Farm, page 12

 part  #9 of  The Vampire Chronicles Series


Blackwood Farm

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  "JASMINE WAS WAITING for me at the landing, in a perfect fit over the fact that I hadn't told anyone where I was going, and she was losing her mind with worry; and even Patsy was here and Patsy was worrying because Patsy had had a dream that I was in danger and she had driven in from New Orleans just to see if I was all right.

  " 'Aunt Queen's here, isn't she?' I asked impatiently as I made my way to the kitchen with her. 'And as for Patsy coming in from New Orleans, it's probably because she needs money, and we'll be in for a big argument tonight. But I don't have time for this. I have to tell you what I found out there. We have to call the sheriff right away. ¡¯

  " 'The sheriff? For what!' Jasmine demanded. 'And yes, your Aunt Queen is here. She arrived about an hour ago, and nobody could find you, and the pirogue was gone,' and so forth and so on for a straight three minutes.

  "No sooner had she stopped her harangue than Aunt Queen appeared, and she threw her arms around me, dirty though I was from the swamp. She was her usual elegant self, right to the perfect curls of her white hair and her soft green silk dress. With Aunt Queen, it's silk or silk, that's about the extent of it, and I can't think of embracing her without thinking of silk.

  "Patsy also came into the kitchen and sat down opposite me as I settled at the table, with Aunt Queen taking the chair to the right of me and Jasmine putting a beer down in front of me and then sitting to my left.

  "I pulled off my dirty garden gloves and drank half the beer in one swallow, and Jasmine shook her head but got up to get me another.

  " 'What is this about the sheriff?' Aunt Queen asked. 'Why do you want the sheriff?¡¯

  "I laid out the earrings and the brooch, and I told them all about everything I had seen. I told them about the skull just disintegrating, but that I knew the sheriff could get the DNA from the white powder left of it to prove it was Rebecca's, and that for a DNA match there was hair in the brush that Rebecca had used, upstairs in the trunk that bore her name. There was hair in her comb too.

  "Aunt Queen looked at Jasmine and Jasmine shook her head.

  " 'You think the sheriff of Ruby River Parish is going to run DNA tests on a pile of white powder!' Jasmine declared. 'You're going to tell this cockamamy story to the sheriff of Ruby River Parish? You, Tarquin Blackwood, dedicated buddy of Goblin, your spirit duplicate? You're going to call the sheriff? I don't want to be in this kitchen when that conversation takes place. ¡¯

  " 'Listen to me,' I insisted. 'This woman was murdered. There's no statute of limitations on murder, and --¡¯

  "When Aunt Queen spoke, she was very soft and reasonable-sounding. 'Quinn, my darling, I don't think the sheriff will believe this story. And I don't think he will send anyone into the thick of the swamp. ¡¯

  " 'All right,' I said, 'I see. No one cares about this. No one believes it. ¡¯

  " 'It isn't that I don't believe it,' said Aunt Queen, 'it's that I don't think the outside world will believe it. ¡¯

  " 'Yeah, that's it,' chimed in Patsy. 'The outside world is going to think you're a crackpot, Tarquin, if they don't already from all these years of your talking about that damned spook. Tarquin, the more you carry on about this, the crazier everybody thinks you are. ¡¯

  "At some point while all this was going on -- my valiant struggle to get them to believe and investigate and their pleading with me not to make a fool of myself -- Pops walked in and I reiterated the whole story for him.

  "He sat at the corner of the table listening with his dull eyes, and then said under his breath that he'd go back there to this island with me if I wanted, and when I said I did want this, that it was exactly what I wanted, he seemed surprised.

  "All the while, Goblin stood over by the sink listening to this conversation and looking from one to another of the crowd at the table as this or that one spoke. Then he came over and started pulling on my right shoulder.

  "I said, 'Goblin, get away, I've got no time for you now. ' And with a profound will I pushed at him mentally, and to my amazement he was gone.

  "Then Patsy imitated my voice and what I'd just said, making fun of me, and gave a low sneering laugh. 'Goblin, get away,' she repeated, 'and now you're telling us there's a marble table out there and a gold chair. ¡¯

  "I fired back at her that those details were of the least importance and then I positively demanded to see the sheriff and tell him what I had seen.

  "Pops said No, not until he'd gone out there with me, and that if this woman had been rotting for over a hundred years a day or two wouldn't matter now.

  " 'But somebody's living there, Pops,' I said. 'Somebody who must know these chains are up there and must have seen the skull! We have a dangerous situation here. ¡¯

  "Patsy snickered. 'It's a damned good thing that you believe yourself, Quinn, because nobody else does. You've been crazy since you were born. ¡¯

  "Aunt Queen did not look at her. It struck me for the first time in my life that Aunt Queen didn't like Patsy any more than Pops did.

  " 'So what was your dream, Patsy?' I asked, trying not to bristle at her insults. 'Jasmine told me you came home today because you had a dream. ¡¯

  " 'Oh, it can't compare to your story,' she said ironically and coldly, her blue eyes hard as glass. 'I just woke up all scared for you. There was somebody who was going to hurt you, and Blackwood Manor was burning, and this group of people -- they had you and they were going to hurt you, and Virginia Lee was in the dream and she told me, "Patsy, get him away. " She was real clear, she was sitting with her embroidery, and you know all the embroidery we still have that she did, and there she was in the dream, embroidering, and she put it aside and told me what I just said. It's all fading now. But Blackwood Manor was on fire. I woke up scared. ¡¯

  "I looked at Pops and Jasmine. They hadn't told her anything about Rebecca or the oil-lamp scare, I knew by their faces. I looked up at Goblin, who was standing in the corner to my far left, and Goblin was looking at Patsy, and he seemed thoughtful if not a little scared himself.

  "At this point, Aunt Queen called for the end of the Kitchen Committee Confab. We did have guests coming in, supper had to be prepared, Lolly and Big Ramona were waiting for us to clear out, and Aunt Queen wanted to talk to me later in her room. We'd eat supper in there, just the two of us.

  "Nobody was calling the sheriff until Pops had gone to the island with me. And Pops said he wasn't feeling very good, he had to go lie down. The heat was bad and he'd been working on the flower patches in the full sun; he didn't feel good at all.

  "I insisted on placing the earrings and brooch in a plastic bag so that any residue of tissue clinging to them could be analyzed, and then I went up to my room to shower, realizing I was starving to death.

  "It was maybe six o'clock when I sat down to supper with Aunt Queen. Her room had just been redone in golden yellow taffeta, and we were at the small round table against the back windows of the house at which she frequently took her meals.

  "We devoured one of her favorite dishes -- scrambled eggs with caviar and sour cream, along with her favorite champagne.

  "She was wearing silver spike heels and a loose-fitting silk-and-lace dress. She had a cameo at her throat, centered perfectly on her collar -- Jasmine must have helped her -- and we had the earrings and the cameo brooch from the island with us.

  "The brooch was 'Rebecca at the Well,' the earrings were tiny heads, as is usually the case with small cameos.

  "I began by telling her all about Rebecca's trunk in the attic, and then Rebecca's ghost and what had happened, and then I went over again everything that was on the island and how perfectly strange it was out there, and that there was clear evidence of murder on the second floor of the house.

  " 'All right,' she said. 'You've heard many a story of Manfred, and you know now that after Virginia Lee died and left him a widower he was considered a madman in these parts. ¡¯

  "I nodded for her to go on. I also took no
te that Goblin was right behind her, some distance from her, just watching me with a kind of abstracted expression on his face. He was also leaning against the wall kind of casually, and something about that struck a bad note with me -- that he would present such an image of comfort, but my mind was really not on Goblin but on Rebecca and Aunt Queen.

  "Aunt Queen went on with her tale.

  " 'But what you don't know,' she said, 'is that Manfred brought women here to Blackwood Manor, always claiming they were governesses for William and Camille, when in fact they were nothing more than playthings for him -- starry-eyed Irish girls he got from Storyville, the red-light district in New Orleans -- whom he kept for as long as it suited his purposes, and then from the picture they were abruptly erased. ¡¯

  " 'God, you're telling me he killed more than one of them?' I asked.

  " 'I don't know that he did any such thing,' said Aunt Queen. She went on. 'It's your story about this island that has put it in my mind that perhaps he did murder them. But no one knew what became of them, and it was an easy thing to get rid of a poor Irish girl in those days. You simply dropped her down in the middle of New Orleans. What more need be done?¡¯

  " 'But Rebecca, did you hear tell of Rebecca?¡¯

  " 'Yes, indeed, I did,' said Aunt Queen. 'You know I did. I heard plenty tell of her. And I'm telling you now. Now let me go on in my fashion. Some of these Irish girls were kind to little William and Camille, but in the main they didn't bother with them one way or another, and so they don't come down to us with any names or faces, or even mysterious trunks in the attic, though that would have been a significant clue. ¡¯

  " 'No, there were no other suspicious trunks in the attic,' I interjected. 'But there are clothes, heaps of old clothes, clothes museums would pay for, I think. But only Rebecca's trunk. ¡¯

  " 'Slow down and let me talk,' Aunt Queen said with a little graceful exasperation. 'Quinn, you're overexcited and it's a marvelous thing to see,' she said, smiling, 'but let me talk. ¡¯

  "And talk she did.

  " 'Now, while all of that was going on,' she said, 'Manfred was up to his famous tricks of riding his black gelding over the land, and disappearing into the swamp for weeks at a time.

  " 'Then came Rebecca. Now Rebecca was not only more beautiful than the other women, she was also very refined and passed herself off for a lady with a gracious manner, which won everyone over to her side.

  " 'But one night when Manfred was off in the swamps she got to cursing Manfred for his absence, and in the kitchen she got drunk on brandy with Ora Lee -- that was Jasmine's great-great-grandmother -- and she told Ora Lee her story, of how she, Rebecca, had been born in the Irish Channel in New Orleans and was as "common as dirt," as she put it, in a world "as narrow as the gutter," she declared, one of thirteen children, and how she had gotten raped in a Garden District mansion where she'd been working as a maid, and the whole Irish neighborhood knew about it, and when her family wanted her to go into the convent on account of it she went downtown to Storyville, instead, and they took her into a house of prostitution as she had hoped. Now, Rebecca was pregnant from the rape, but whether she lost the child or got rid of it, this part was unclear.

  " 'To Ora Lee, she said flat out that being in an elegant and fine house in Storyville, with the piano always playing and the gentlemen being so gracious, was far superior to being at home in a miserable shotgun house at St. Thomas and Washington by the river where her Irish father and her German grandmother used to beat her and her brothers and sisters with a strap.

  " 'But Rebecca did not want to end her upward climb in Storyville, so she started to put on the airs of a lady and use what she knew of manners to make herself more refined. She also loved to do embroidery and crocheting, which had been beaten into her at home, and used her sewing abilities to make herself fine clothes.

  " 'Wait a minute,' I interrupted her. 'Didn't Patsy say something about the embroidery in her dream, that Virginia Lee was embroidering? That's important. And you should see the embroidered things upstairs in that trunk. Yes, she knew embroidery, Rebecca -- they're confused in Patsy's dream, but you know about the oil lamps and what I almost did. ¡¯

  " 'I do know, of course I know,' said Aunt Queen. 'Why do you think I came home? But you need knowledge to arm you against this cozy lovemaking ghost. So listen to what the story was.

  " 'The other prostitutes in the house in Storyville laughed at Rebecca, and they called her the Countess, but she knew that sooner or later a man would come who would see her attributes and take her out of that place. She sat right in the room where the women congregated for the man to make his choice, and she embroidered as if she was a great lady, and gave each gentleman her lovely smile.

  " 'Well, Manfred Blackwood was the man of her dreams, and the tale came down in Jasmine's family that he had actually and truly loved Rebecca much in the same way that he had loved Virginia Lee. Indeed it was Rebecca, petite Rebecca with her brilliant smile and charming ways that finally took his mind off the grief.

  " 'He was obsessed with giving her jewelry, and she loved it, and she was gracious and sweet to him and even sang old songs to him, which she had learned growing up.

  " 'Of course, in her first weeks here she was all honey and spice to little William and Camille, but they didn't fall for it, or so the story says, just waiting for her to disappear like all the rest.

  " 'Then Manfred and Rebecca went to Europe for a year, the two of them, and it was rumored they spent a very long time in Naples, because Rebecca loved it so, and they even had a villa for a while on the famous Amalfi coast. If you saw that coast, and you will someday, Quinn, you'll understand that it is one of the most beautiful places on earth.

  " 'Imagine it, this poor girl from the Irish Channel in the dreamland of southern Italy, and think what it meant. It was there that Rebecca cultivated a love of cameos, apparently, as she had quite a collection when she returned, and it was then that she showed them off to Ora Lee and Jerome and their niece, Pepper, explaining all about "Rebecca at the Well," the theme that was named for her, she exclaimed -- poor creature. And ever after that she wore a cameo at her neck and earrings such as those you've found out there.

  " 'Now, speaking of out there -- right after their return from Naples Manfred took to spending more time in the swamps than ever before. And within months there came all the workmen from New Orleans and the deliveries of lumber and metal and all manner of things to make the notorious Hermitage on Sugar Devil Island -- this place you've now seen with your own eyes.

  " 'But as you know, Manfred paid off the hirelings when the secret place was completed, and he took to spending weeks out there, leaving Rebecca at home to fret and cry and pace the floor while my poor father -- William -- watched the woman change from pretty girl to banshee, as he put it to me later on.

  " 'Meanwhile, it had become the scandal of the parish that Manfred kept Rebecca in his own bedroom -- and that was your room, Quinn, the room with the front parlor to it; it became your room as soon as you were born. Pops, as you know, wants the back room upstairs so he can see out the back windows and keep an eye on the shed and the garages and the men and the cars and all that. So you inherited that front room.

  " 'But I digress, and it will probably happen more than once. Now, let me see. We left Rebecca, with a cameo at her neck, in her fancy clothes, pacing the floor up there crying and murmuring for Manfred, who was gone for as long, sometimes, as two weeks.

  " 'And, happy with his new retreat, he often took expensive provisions with him, while at other times he said he would hunt for what he ate.

  " 'Now, it couldn't have been a worse time for her to do it, but Rebecca wanted Manfred to marry her -- make her an honest woman as they used to say in those days, you know -- and she told everyone that he would. She even got the priest up here to accost him on one of his rare visits home and talk to him about it, how he ought to do it, and how Rebecca was a proper wife for Manfred no matter what her past

  " 'But you know, Quinn, in those days, what man was going to marry a prostitute from Storyville with whom he'd been living for over two years? Bringing the priest proved a terrible mistake, as Manfred was ashamed and annoyed. And the rumor spread that Manfred beat Rebecca for doing it, and Ora Lee had to interfere to make him stop.

  " 'Somehow or other they made it up, and Manfred went back out into the swamp. Thereafter, when he came back from these forays into the depths of the bog he often had gifts not only for Rebecca, to whom he gave lovely cameos, but gifts of pearls and diamonds for Camille, and even fine stickpins and cuff links with diamonds for William to wear. ¡¯

  " 'So he was meeting someone out there in the swamp,' I said. 'He had to be. How else could he come back with gifts?¡¯

  " 'Precisely, he was meeting someone. And his absences from the house grew longer and longer, and his conduct at home reclusive and peculiar, and when he was gone, William (my father) and Camille suffered downright meanness and heavy abuse from Rebecca, who grew to hate them for what they were part of a family to which she did not legally belong.

  " 'Imagine it, the poor children, now adolescents, at the pure mercy of this young stepmother, all left alone in this house with only the colored servants, the devoted and loving Jerome and Ora Lee and their niece, Pepper, trying to interfere.

  " 'Rebecca would pyroot through their rooms whenever she wanted, and then came the incident of her finding Camille's poetry in a leather-bound book, and reciting the poems at dinner to taunt poor Camille, wounding Camille all but mortally so that Camille threw a hot bowl of soup in Rebecca's face. ¡¯

  " 'I have Camille's book,' I told Aunt Queen. 'I found it in Rebecca's trunk. But why didn't someone else find it when the trunk was packed? Why were there cameos in the trunk? I know everything was thrown in there but still --?¡¯

  " 'Because the woman disappeared under violent circumstances, and it was Manfred who grabbed up her things and heaved them into the trunk. And besides, the old madman had been absent when the affair of the poetry took place, and who knew how much he knew? He didn't see the book, or care about it, that's plain enough, and he didn't bother to save the cameos you found in the trunk, either, though he did save five cameos as I'll explain. ¡¯

  " 'How did Rebecca disappear? What were the violent circumstances?' I pushed.

  " 'She tried to set fire to this house. ¡¯

  " 'Ah, of course. ¡¯

  " 'She did it with the oil lamps. ¡¯

  "I gasped. 'So that's why everybody believed me!' I said. 'Jasmine and Lolly and Pops. They knew the story of what Rebecca had done in the past. ¡¯

  "Aunt Queen nodded. 'Rebecca set the lamps on the windowsills of the front rooms. She had a blaze started in four places when Ora Lee and Jerome caught her in the act, and Jerome struck her and shouted for the farmhands to come in and put out the fire. Now you know what a risk that was for Jerome, a black man, to haul off and slap a white woman in those days, but this crazy Rebecca was trying to burn down this house.

  " 'The gossip was that Jerome knocked her unconscious. And that she had almost succeeded in her mad designs, the fire really blazing before they caught it, and the repairs costing a mint.

  " 'Now, imagine what a danger fire was in those times, Quinn. We didn't have the pumps on the banks of the swamp in those days, Quinn, we didn't have the water out here from town. This house could have really gone up. But it didn't. Blackwood Manor was saved.

  " 'Of course Jerome kept Rebecca under close watch in the room without candles or lamps until Manfred came back from the swamp.

  " 'You can imagine the tension, Quinn, with Jerome, a black man, taking on this responsibility, and Rebecca being locked up there in the dark, calling him a "nigger" and threatening to have him lynched and every other thing she could think of through the door. There were lynchings in those days, too. They didn't happen hereabouts that I know of, but they happened.

  " 'The Irish poor were never great lovers of the black man, I can tell you, Quinn, and the threats Rebecca made, to bring her kin up here from New Orleans, were enough to scare Jerome and Ora Lee and Pepper and all their folks.

  " 'But they couldn't let her out, and they wouldn't let her out, so scream and rant in the dark she did.

  " 'Well finally Manfred came back, and when he saw the damage and the extent of the repairs, when he realized that the house had almost been lost, he went wild.

  " 'He grabbed Rebecca up off the bed where she'd been moaning and crying, and he beat her with his hands and his fists. He slapped her back and forth and punched her until Jerome and Ora Lee screamed to make him stop.

  " 'Jerome wasn't strong enough to hold Manfred, and he didn't dare hit him, but Ora Lee stopped the brawl simply by screaming over and over so that all the colored and white staff came flooding into the house and up into the room.

  " 'Rebecca, being surely one of the most unwise human beings that ever lived, was roaring that Manfred had promised to marry her, that she would be his wife or die here, that she would never leave. Jasmine's family were all sort of holding her and reaching out to Manfred to please not hit her anymore.

  " 'In his raging temper, Manfred sent for her trunk, and it was he, the man himself, who shoved every blessed thing that belonged to her into it, higgledy-piggledy, and told the men to drive her to the edge of the property and throw her off it with all that was hers. He threw fistsful of money at her, raining it down on her where she lay on the floor in a daze.

  " 'But the wicked and unwise girl rose up and ran to him and wouldn't let go, screaming, "Manfred, I love you. Manfred, I can't live without you, Manfred, I won't live without you. Manfred, remember Naples. " (Everyone remembered that "Remember Naples. " ) "Manfred, remember, Manfred, I'm your Rebecca at the Well, come out to be your bride. Look at the cameo at my neck, Manfred. Manfred, I've come to the well to be your bride. "

  " 'And it was then that he dragged her down the steps, out the doorway, across the lawn and past the cemetery to the landing, where he flung her into the pirogue and pushed away from the bank. When she tried to get up off the floor of the pirogue, he kicked her and she fell back.

  " 'That was the last anybody saw of Rebecca Stanford alive or dead.

  " 'Two weeks later -- a fortnight as they called it in those days -- Manfred came home. When he saw Rebecca's trunk in the middle of the room he was angry, and told Jerome to put it upstairs.

  " 'Later, Ora Lee discovered a velvet box in the top drawer of Rebecca's bureau, and in it several cameos along with a note in Rebecca's hand. It said "First cameos given to me by Manfred. Naples. " And the date. Now, Ora Lee kept these cameos for at least a year, not wanting them thrown away, as they were very pretty, and then she gave them to Manfred, who tried to give them to Camille.

  " 'Now, Camille had not gotten over her hatred of Rebecca and frankly never did. She wouldn't touch the cameos, but Manfred kept them, and now and then he was seen taking them out and looking at them and mumbling to himself.

  " 'When my father married my mother, Manfred offered her the cameos, but my father wouldn't let her take them because he remembered Rebecca with so much hatred, too.

  " 'Then, when I was a little girl, Manfred gave the cameos to me. I was ten years old. The Old Man said strange things to me. Wild things, things I didn't understand. ¡¯

  "-- And here, Aunt Queen told me the story that she repeated to both of us tonight, of Manfred's wild ravings, only in that first telling, when I was a boy of eighteen, she included less detail --.

  " 'I had no temerity about keeping the cameos,' she declared. 'I had never even heard the story of Rebecca, and wouldn't for many years.

  " 'I had already begun collecting cameos by that time, and had a score of them when I finally told my father how Manfred had given me my first few. But it wasn't my father who told me the story of Rebecca. It was Ora Lee who told me -- you know, it was kitchen-table talk -- and to tell the truth, Ora Lee had felt a liking for Rebecca,
an understanding of the poor Irish girl who had wanted to better herself, a girl who was afraid of her own vicious Irish father and German-Irish mother, a girl who had reached the faraway coast of Italy with Manfred, where Manfred at a candlelight dinner had pinned the first cameo of "Rebecca at the Well" to Rebecca's lace blouse himself.

  " 'And, Ora Lee insisted, Rebecca hadn't started out being mean to the children, or mean to anybody; it was what came as the result of her dissatisfaction over time. It was what came of Manfred's downright meanness.

  " 'And as Ora Lee put it, in old age she was more able to understand Rebecca, and make no mistake, Quinn, Ora Lee thought Rebecca was murdered out there -- you can be sure of it -- but the point I was making was that in old age, Ora Lee was more forgiving of Rebecca and what she had done, though she couldn't forgive Rebecca's meanness to Camille.

  " 'Even as Ora Lee told me these things, she begged me never to mention Rebecca's name to my father or to my Aunt Camille.

  " ' "Your Aunt Camille was done in by those days," Ora Lee told me. "That poor child was always morbid, but she went deep into her shell and never came out anymore. "

  " 'To return to the history of your illustrious ancestor,' Aunt Queen went on, 'I didn't need Ora Lee to tell me that he had kept bringing his Irish girls to the house and keeping them in the front bedroom upstairs for many a year. I was a girl of twenty or so when my mother told me all about it -- how just after my birth my father had begged the Old Man to please stop his bad behavior on account of his grandbaby coming into the world.

  " 'The Old Man had cursed and fussed and slammed his fist down on the dining table so hard as to rattle the silver, but he agreed. For a daughter-in-law he hadn't bothered, but for a grandbaby, well, he would, and so he removed himself from the big upstairs best bedroom, in which you now reside, my blessed nephew, and he took this bedroom here on the back of the house. And even during my early years -- before I was too young to remember -- he slipped his women in by the back door.

  " 'The changing of the room had a great significance for everyone. The priest of those days, Fr. Flarety, stopped calling on Manfred for his wicked ways, and by the time I was ten, by the time the Old Man gave me the cameos, he was pretty much just a pitiful slobbering old creature, raving at the empty air and trying to hail with his cane anyone who chanced to pass the door.

  " 'My mother became the official lady of Blackwood Manor because Aunt Camille was a wounded being who could never take such a place.

  " 'And as for the trunk, well, I suppose I forgot about it, and it just became one of many up there, full of uninteresting clothes. Oh, of course, I always meant to go and explore the attic, but thinking it a monumental chore to put a lot of chaos in order I never bothered, and neither has anyone else.

  " 'And now, Quinn, you know more about what happened to Rebecca Stanford than anyone living, even me. Her ghost is a danger to you, Quinn, and to everyone around you. ¡¯

  " 'Oh, but I don't know,' I answered. 'I found those chains out there, Aunt Queen. Rusted chains. But I don't really know what happened to her!¡¯

  " 'Quinn, the important thing is you don't call up this ghost again!¡¯

  " 'But I never really called her in the first place. ¡¯

  " 'Yes, you did, Quinn. Not only did you find her things, you wanted to know her story. ¡¯

  " 'Aunt Queen, if that's how I called her up, then why didn't she appear to you years ago when Ora Lee told you about her? Why didn't she appear to you when you were a little girl and Manfred gave you the cameos?¡¯

  " 'I don't have your gift for seeing ghosts, Quinn,' she came back fast. 'I've never seen a ghost, and you've seen plenty of them. ¡¯

  "I sensed a hesitancy in her, a sudden sharp introspection. And I thought I knew what it was.

  " 'You've seen Goblin, haven't you, Aunt Queen?' I asked her.

  "And as I said these words, Goblin came and crouched down at the arm of her chair and peered at her. He was extremely vivid and solid. I was shocked by his proximity to her, and I loathed it, but she was definitely looking at him.

  " 'Back off, Goblin!' I said crossly, and he at once obeyed, very sad and nonplussed to have made me so short with him. He withdrew, throwing beseeching looks at me, and then he vanished.

  " 'What did you just see?' Aunt Queen asked me.

  " 'What I always see,' I responded. 'My double. He's wearing my jeans, just as neat and pressed, and he's wearing a polo shirt same as me and he looks exactly like me. ¡¯

  "She sat back, drinking her champagne slowly.

  " 'What did you see, Aunt Queen?' I threw the question back at her.

  " 'I see something, Quinn, but it's not like what you see. I see an agitation in the air; it's like the movement or the turbulence that rises above a hot road in front of one's car in the middle of summer. I see that and sometimes there's a vague shape to it, a human shape, a shape of your size, always. The whole apparition is no more than, perhaps, a second. And what's left is a feeling that something is lingering, that something unseen is there. ¡¯

  "For the first time in my life, I was angry with Aunt Queen. 'Why did you never tell me this!' I demanded. 'How could you go year in and year out and not tell me that you saw that much of Goblin, that you knew --. ' I was too out of sorts to go on.

  " 'That's about the extent of what I see. ' She went on as though I weren't frothing at the mouth, 'and I don't, by any means, see it very often. Only now and then when your spirit wants me to see him, I suspect. ¡¯

  "I was not only angry -- fit to be tied -- I was amazed. I had been in a constant state of amazement since Rebecca appeared to me, reeling from one revelation after another, and now this, to discover that all these years Aunt Queen had been seeing Goblin.

  " 'Is there anything else?' I asked with a hint of sarcasm, 'that you can confide at this time?¡¯

  " 'Quinn,' she said gravely, 'it's perhaps ridiculous of me to say that I've always done what I thought best for you. I've never denied the existence of Goblin. The path I chose was more careful and deliberate than that. It was not to ratify Goblin, not to reinforce him, one might say, because I've never known whether Goblin was a good creature or bad. But as we are laying it all out on the table, let me tell you that Big Ramona can see of Goblin about as much as I can -- a turbulence in the air. No more, no less. And Jasmine can see that much too. ¡¯

  "I was floored. I felt quite alone. My closest kith and kin had lied to me, as I saw it, and I wished with all my heart that Lynelle had not died. I prayed that somehow the spirit of Lynelle could come to me -- since I possessed such a knack for ghosts and spirits -- and I swore under my breath and to myself alone that I knew Lynelle could tell me what to make of all that had transpired.

  " 'Beloved nephew,' Aunt Queen said -- an expression she would use a lot as I got older, and she said it now with sweet formality and intimate devotion -- 'beloved nephew, you have to realize that I take your powers very seriously and always have. But I've never known if they were a good thing. ¡¯

  "A sudden revelation came to me, a certainty based upon what she had said, if not everything else, that my powers weren't for good. I told her in a half whisper, the only manly voice I could manage, about the twilight panic, the thoughts of taking Pops' gun and putting an end to my life, and I told her about how on the afternoon of Rebecca's coming to me I had sat on the front steps, watching that golden light go down and saying to the powers that be, Please deliver me from this, please anything but this. I didn't remember my prayer. I don't remember it now. Perhaps I gave her a more nearly accurate version. I don't know.

  "There came a tender silence, and when I looked up I saw the tears on her cheeks. Beyond her, by the post of her bed, stood Goblin, vivid once more, and he too was weeping and reaching out to me, as if he would like to cradle my head in his left hand.

  " 'Go away, Goblin!' I said sharply. 'I don't want you here now! Leave me. Go find Lynelle for me! Travel the spirit winds for me, but get away. ¡¯
br />   "He flashed brilliant, at his most detailed, his most shining, and his face was full of hurt and insult and pouting lip, and then, snap, no more.

  " 'If he's still in this room, I don't know it,' I confessed to Aunt Queen. 'And as for Rebecca, I have to find justice for her. I have to discover, if I can, what they did to her in that house. ¡¯

  "Aunt Queen wiped her blue eyes with her napkin, and I felt more than a twinge of guilt that I had made her cry. I loved her, suddenly, no matter what she said or did, and I needed her and was so miserable at having been angry with her that I got up, came around, went down on my knees and embraced her and held her fragile form for some seconds in utter quiet.

  "Then I looked at her shimmering, ankle-strap spike-heel shoes, and I laughed and I kissed her insteps. I kissed her toes. I gave her right foot an affectionate squeeze with my left hand.

  " 'Tarquin Blackwood, you're certifiably insane, cease and desist,' she declared. 'Now sit down like a good boy, and pour me another glass of champagne. ¡¯

  "We had finished one bottle, so I opened another, with the aplomb of a boy who has for years assisted in an elegant bed-and-breakfast hotel, and poured the foaming wine into her tulip glass.

  "Of course she then poured out to me her horror at my having thoughts of putting a gun to my head, and I swore to her I would never do it, only think about it, not as long as she lived and Pops lived and Jasmine lived and Big Ramona lived and Lolly lived; and then I rattled off the names of all the farmhands and Shed Men, and I was being perfectly and convincingly sincere.

  " 'But you see, what I'm trying to say to you,' I went on, now that we were both calmer and obviously a little drunker, 'is that spirits and ghosts must come from somewhere, and mine was a blasphemous prayer or a dangerous one and out of the darkness Rebecca came. ¡¯

  " 'Now you're talking sense, my dear boy,' she responded.

  " 'Of course, I know that, Aunt Queen. I've always known it. I'll never forget that she urged me to light the lamps. I'll never be her pawn again. It can't happen. I'm too wary, too in control of it when I see these creatures, I swear it, but I do have to find out what they did to her, and she alone can tell me, and that will be where she's strongest -- on Sugar Devil Island in that strange house. ¡¯

  " 'To which you will not go, Tarquin, unless Pops goes with you! Do you understand?¡¯

  "I didn't respond, then I spoke my mind: 'It's not good for Pops to go out in the swamp right now. Pops isn't himself. Pops isn't hale and hearty; Pops hasn't been eating for days, and the heat out there, and the mosquitoes -- no, I can't take Pops --. ¡¯

  " 'Who then, Tarquin? For as God is my witness, you shall not go alone. ¡¯

  " 'Aunt Queen,' I said, 'nothing's going to stop me from going out there in the morning. I'd go now, if it wasn't pitch-dark. ¡¯

  "She leaned across the table. 'Tarquin, I forbid it,' she said. 'Need I remind you that you've described a mausoleum made of gold, and signs of habitation in the Hermitage -- a desk and a golden chair! Somebody's using the island. And why, pray tell, if this tomb is made of gold --. ¡¯

  " 'I don't know all the answers, but I have to go back out there, and don't you see, I have to have the freedom to invoke this ghost, and to let her speak to me --. ¡¯

  " 'A ghost that seduced you! A ghost that used her charm and sensuality so palpably that you actually lost your virginity with her? Is this what I'm hearing -- and you mean to invoke her?¡¯

  " 'I have to go, Aunt Queen, and frankly, I think you know that if you were me, you would. ¡¯

  " 'I'd speak to Fr. Kevin first, that's what I'd do and that's what I want you to do. Now, we'll call Father in the morning. ¡¯

  " 'Father!' I scoffed. 'He just said his first Mass. He's a kid!¡¯

  "And I was exaggerating but I was right that Fr. Kevin Mayfair was young, meaning around thirty-five or so, and though I liked him enormously, I didn't think of him with the same respect I felt for the old gray-haired priests of the pre-Vatican II days who said Mass with so much more flair.

  "She rose from the table in such a little huff that she knocked over her chair backwards and then went striding in her dazzling high heels to her dressing table where she rummaged through her top drawer.

  "Then she turned and I saw a rosary swinging in the light. 'This isn't blessed, but it will have to do for now,' she said. 'I want you to put this around your neck, under your shirt, over your shirt, on your bare chest, I don't care, but you're to wear it from now on. ¡¯

  "I didn't bother to put up a fight. The rosary was small with perfectly round gold beads, and I didn't mind having it, though it did disappear under my shirt.

  " 'Aunt Queen,' I went on, 'Fr. Kevin isn't going to believe all this about Rebecca and her ghost any more than the sheriff will believe it. So why should we call him? After Mass he always laughs when he asks me about Goblin. I think he's seen me speaking to Goblin in church. No, I know I don't want to talk to Fr. Kevin. Just forget about that. ¡¯

  "Aunt Queen was in no mood to give up. She'd told me that first thing in the morning she was heading for her favorite goldsmith in the French Quarter to get a gold crucifix on a chain for me, and then she'd head for the rectory at St. Mary's Assumption Church to have Fr. Kevin bless the crucifix, and then she would discuss the entire matter with Fr. Kevin and find out what he thought.

  " 'And meantime,' she asked, 'what do we do about these earrings and this cameo brooch?¡¯

  " 'We're to save them. We have to. The DNA in this tissue can't be that degraded. We have to find out if she was the one who really died out there. That's what Rebecca wants of me; she wants recognition; she wants to be known. ¡¯

  " 'And she wanted you to burn down this house, Quinn. ¡¯

  " 'She'll never persuade me to do anything like that again,' I insisted. 'I'm wise to her. ¡¯

  " 'But you care about what she wants,' said Aunt Queen, her tongue just a little bit thick from the champagne.

  " 'It's justice, Aunt Queen,' I said. 'It's justice that I, a descendant of Manfred, have to carry out. Maybe it won't amount to much -- say, just putting her cameos into the case in the living room with a special card explaining they belonged to a famous love of Manfred Blackwood. Maybe that will allow her spirit to rest. But for now, don't worry anymore about me. I'll do what I have to do, and I'll do what's best. ¡¯

  "By that time I had pushed her past all patience, and after two more glasses of champagne I was humoring her, concealing my silent secret schemes.

  "I loved her. I love her totally now. But I knew, knew for the first time that I had to deceive her, had in some way to protect her from protecting me.

  "Of course I was going out to the island, and of course I was going to invoke Rebecca, but just how and when I wasn't so sure. "
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