Blackwood farm, p.17

Blackwood Farm, page 17

 part  #9 of  The Vampire Chronicles Series


Blackwood Farm

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  "FOR THE NEXT WEEK I was under lock and key, or armed escort.

  "I didn't find out about it until the morning after Pops' funeral, when I tried to leave my room and discovered I had a security guard with me, pledged to go where I would go.

  "I didn't too terribly mind, since I alone knew how real the mysterious stranger had been and I didn't want to be shocked by him. But I made a nuisance of myself by warning everyone about the dangers of the island.

  "Our investigations proceeded rapidly, and I know that I focused on them to escape the pure horror of Pops' death -- the loss of the only man who had ever been my father. We had the reading of his will to attend to, and I was dreadfully concerned that he might have cut out Patsy altogether. If I had been left anything at all I resolved to split it with Patsy or at least to give her some of it.

  "Meantime she was still out roaming the South, playing beer joints and small clubs, and Aunt Queen was desperately chasing after her by phone, trying to get her to come back so we could all face what Pops had done, whatever it was.

  "Now let me return to the investigation.

  "Regarding the mysterious letter, Mayfair Medical's laboratory could find no discernible fingerprints on it and reported that the brand of paper was rare, marketed in Europe and not in the United States, the ink was India ink and that the writing did not indicate any pathology and might have been done by a woman or a man. They noted further that the writer had used a quill pen, pressing down uncommonly hard for such an instrument, implying that the letter writer had been extremely sure of himself.

  "In other words, they could tell almost nothing about the letter. And it had been passed on to a true graphologist with our happy permission.

  "As to the rest of our concerns, we had better luck.

  "Mayfair Medical confirmed in short order that the DNA collected from the residue in the Hermitage matched the DNA in the hair found in Rebecca's trunk. The materials were very old but there had been an abundance of both and the testing had been simple.

  "Aunt Queen now felt certain that Rebecca had met her death at Manfred's hands, and that my dreams weren't entirely the work of a diseased mind, if she'd ever had any doubt in the matter.

  "I cleaned all those cameos found in Rebecca's trunk and the cameos I'd taken from the island. These I placed in the china cabinet on the first floor with a display card, explaining they were gifts from Manfred Blackwood to a woman with whom he had been passionately in love. I explained the connection between Rebecca's name and the theme of the cameos, and I felt in so doing -- in making this display for the public eye -- I had done right by Rebecca.

  "After long and intense discussion involving Aunt Queen, Jasmine and me (Aunt Queen had been bedridden since the night of Pops' burial), we agreed that we would include in the tour information that the Old Man, Manfred, was believed to have murdered a young woman with whom he was romantically involved, and her remains had only recently been discovered and properly interred.

  "As to this interment, I was going to handle it, if and when allowed to do it. A small marble tombstone was ordered with the name Rebecca Stanford carved on it, and the tombstone guys had it delivered in one day. I put it down in the cemetery to wait until I could bring the remains to the spot.

  "Meantime, the FBI could find no DNA material from the site which matched the material of any current missing person. Nevertheless, they were deeply courteous about having been called in, and they did confirm that the DNA of several persons was present in the evil morass and that the whole resembled an antiquated but gruesome crime scene.

  "Finally, a full week after Pops' funeral, with Aunt Queen still in bed and refusing to take any nourishment, which had me and everyone else in near critical hysteria, I set out for Sugar Devil Island at dawn with all of the eight Shed Men coming in small pirogues behind me. We all had our guns -- I now carried Pops' thirty-eight -- and two security men brought up the rear. Clem was with us too, and Jasmine was at my side, in her skintight jeans, with her thirty-eight pistol, determined to have a front-row seat for everything.

  "We brought with us plenty of tools to open the grand gold-and-granite tomb, and I had with me a small ornamental casket -- a jewelry case, actually, which had been purchased from a gift shop -- into which I meant to place whatever remained of Rebecca. The horrid collecting of her remains had to be done with a small spade. There was no way out of it.

  "It was a convivial party, with Allen, the nominal leader of the Shed Men, referring to us as the Pirogue Posse, but beneath my smiles and laughter was an absolute dread as we set out to reclaim the Hermitage.

  "What could I do but warn all the men of what was involved? The trespasser had had the gall to come into the house! How much they believed was a matter of conjecture.

  "At last, after some forty minutes of pushing and pulling our way through the bog, we came to the bank overgrown with blackberries. There stood the house like a ship that had run aground, the violent thorny wisteria trying desperately to swallow it.

  "I went onto the island, cracked open a beer and just watched as the men verified with their own eyes everything or almost everything that had been told to them. Allen and Clem, who had seen it all the first time around, also stood with me until the excitement was over.

  "Then I said I would go and collect Rebecca's remains alone. I didn't want anybody trooping up there.

  "There was immediate concern for my safety.

  "Okay, Jasmine, you have your gun, you come with me," I said, but I went up first and I had my thirty-eight pistol raised.

  "The sun was breaking pretty strong through the open windows of the second story. For a moment I was dazzled and then gradually I made out a living being before me: it was Rebecca, her dress torn off down her arms, her breasts naked, the hook snaring her rib bone as she hung by the hook, her face white, and the blood streaming from her mouth. She blinked her eyes but she couldn't talk. There was too much blood in her mouth.

  " 'Good God, Rebecca,' I said, and I plunged at the figure, trying to get the hook out of her without hurting her more. She writhed and I could hear her gasping.

  "This was absolutely happening. 'Rebecca, I'm here!' I declared as I tried to lift her.

  "Then I heard Jasmine's voice, and I saw Jasmine's face, and the faces of Allen and Clem. We were all on the second floor of the house. I was lying on my back. And the sun was winking again in the cypresses.

  "There was no more Rebecca. Only the rusted chains dangling and the dark slop there. I climbed to my feet.

  "Jasmine said, 'Clem, you come here, please, brother, and hold this box while I shovel up what I can of this poor girl. Hold the lid back. ¡¯

  "I went off down on the island and got sick to my stomach.

  "Men were talking, talking about damaging 'gorgeous' gold plates to open the grave. I said, 'Do it. I have to know what's inside. ¡¯

  "I sat on the steps of the house and I drank another beer, realizing that this woman might haunt me forever. What I'd done with the cameos was not enough, and the dreams were not enough, and coming here to do this, to gather her remains, was not enough; what would be enough? I didn't know. I couldn't think. I was sick and drinking too much beer and it was killing hot, and the mosquitoes were biting right through my shirt, and the men kept saying, 'Granite, solid granite. ¡¯

  "Finally, at the first narrow side of the rectangular structure that they approached they found an opening beyond the gold plate, and they were able to push it back. It was a heavy door.

  "They were all talking at once, groaning and fussing. Flashlights, who had the flashlights, here was a flashlight, well, will you look at that. I'm not opening that.

  " 'Not opening what?' I said.

  " 'A coffin. ¡¯

  " 'Well, what the hell did you expect to find in a grave?' I asked. I was wildly stimulated. Ordinary things meant nothing to me.

  " 'Now you mind your tone, Little Boss,' sa
id Jasmine. She gave me another beer. What was this? Was I a mental patient she wanted to narcoticize? I said I was sorry. The beer was cold and good. I wasn't going to complain about an ice-cold beer.

  " 'Have you packed up little Miss Stanford in her neat little box?' I asked.

  " 'You're losing it, Little Boss,' she said. 'Now mind your manners. Don't talk to Allen and Clem the way you've been talking. You've always been Aunt Queen's gentleman, don't get rough now. Don't let this place make you contrary. ¡¯

  " 'What the hell are you talking about?' I asked.

  "She looked up thoughtfully at the Hermitage, and then at me, her face positively exquisite with its cacao skin and large pale eyes, eyes that were green or golden.

  " 'Take after your Aunt Queen,' she said. 'That's the only point I'm trying to make, and yes, I have the remains of your ghost girlfriend in the casket. God only knows whatever else I have in this casket. ¡¯

  " 'Make love to me when we get home,' I said. 'I'm no good for ordinary life. You don't see the ghosts I see. You didn't see that girl hanging by the hook. I've been having ghosts. They've been having me. I have to have somebody real. Make love to me when we get home, you and me, all right? Be my chocolate candy. I'm real unsure of my masculinity. ¡¯

  " 'You are?' she shot back. 'Well, you could have fooled me. ¡¯

  "Clem stood over me. 'Quinn, it's an empty coffin. You better come take a look at this for yourself. This is sort of your show, sonny boy. ¡¯

  "I did. It was made of heavy iron, very ornate, and lightly rusted, with a window in it through which one could see the face of the deceased, I presume, though I'd never seen one like it. It had taken five of them with two crowbars to open it. It was lined with something. I thought it was lead. It was dry and soft to my touch. It was lead.

  "And the coffin was in a vault of lead. Yeah, it was lead. And well sealed. Though the vault went down some three feet there was no sign that moisture had ever penetrated it.

  "I stepped down into the vault, and for a long time I stood there, inside the mausoleum -- in the vault -- merely staring at the empty coffin. There was just room to walk around it, which I did.

  "I climbed back up and out into the sunshine.

  " 'Do you know how many of us it took to open that gold door?' Allen asked. 'What do you make of all this? What's that writing up there? You can read that, can't you, Quinn?¡¯

  "I shook my head. 'Manfred,' I said. 'Manfred had some plan to be buried out here, and those whom he trusted never fulfilled his dream. And so we have an empty coffin and an empty mausoleum. We have gold plates and an inscription in Latin. Look up there, that's Latin. I wrote that down. Manfred did all this. Manfred had this thing built when he built the Hermitage. Manfred did it all. And so we close it back up. ¡¯

  " 'But what about all this solid gold!' Clem said. 'You can't just leave all this gold here for people to steal. ¡¯

  " 'Do people still kill each other for gold these days?' I asked. 'Are any of you going to come back out here to steal this gold? Are we going to have a shoot-out over this gold? Let's go back where we came from. I can only take this place for so long. I don't like that a trespasser came into the house. Let's get out of here. ¡¯

  "There was one more thing I wanted to check. I went back into the Hermitage.

  "I was right!

  "On the marble desk there were new books, books on philosophy and history, books on current events, novels. It was all new -- a nice slap in the face. Even the candles were new, though the wicks were blackened. Oh, yes, the fearless one, my trespasser, had been here.

  " 'So what are you going to do next, I wonder?' I said aloud. I flew into a rage. I grabbed up as many of the books as I could and threw them down the front steps of the Hermitage. I went back for the rest and threw them after the first. Then I hurried down the steps and pulled and tossed and kicked them all together.

  "I took out my lighter. I set a small paperback volume aflame, and then another and another. It was going on its own now, with all the men just watching as if I was crazy, which I was.

  " 'His books!' I said. 'He has no right on this property, and he leaves these books for me to see that he's been here again. ¡¯

  " 'Lord God,' Jasmine said, as the flames rose and the fire crackled. 'We got a dead girl, a strange building, a bunch of weird books, and a regular tomb of gold with an empty iron coffin in it, and a crazy boy standing here!¡¯

  " 'Well put,' I said in her ear, 'and don't forget your promise to me, Milk Chocolate. It's you and me alone tonight. ¡¯

  " 'I never made you any promise!' she said.

  " 'I told you, I'm unsure of my masculinity,' I whispered. 'You've got to sacrifice yourself. ' I kicked the fire to make it flare again. I hated burning books. I could hardly stand it to see a Merriam-Webster dictionary go up in smoke. But I had to do this.

  "One or two more kicks and everything was incinerated. I turned and looked at Jasmine, expecting some wise remark, but all I saw was a sort of dreamy thoughtfulness in her face.

  "Then she said:

  " 'You know, boy, you really have me thinking about it. You should be more kind to a woman my age. You scamp. You think I don't have any feelings like that just 'cause I rocked your cradle?¡¯

  " 'How kind can I get?' I asked. 'You think I take up with just anybody?¡¯

  "Her expression never changed. She looked fine in her tight jeans. Her Afro was clipped close and the shape of her head and her face was beautiful.

  "She lived like a nun. I knew that for a fact. There had been no men at all in her life since her husband died years ago. And her sister, Lolly, had had three husbands.

  " 'I'm crazed,' I said, staring at her, staring at her buxom breasts and her small waist. 'I have these visions; what am I supposed to do about it, what does Rebecca want of me? I saw Rebecca up there. I don't understand. Maybe they'll find out I'm crazy. I know one thing though. ¡¯

  " 'What's that?' she asked.

  " 'That I've got you on my mind bad, Ms. Caf¨¦ au Lait. I don't want to sleep with the dead. ¡¯

  "Silence from her and then a partial smile, an uncharacteristic smile. Very slowly she ran her eyes over me, from toe to head.

  "I felt my cock getting hard.

  "The fire had consumed just about everything.

  "The men had closed the tomb. She had the little casket under her right arm. Everybody was hot and sick and cursing and batting at the bugs, and the sun was flashing in the trees, and the water stank of things rotted, things dying.

  "That's what it was about the swamp. Of course things were being born and things were thriving and marvelous creatures lived in the treacherous slime, but more things were rotting and suffering for lack of sun, and it was death that had the upper hand, and death you smelled in the black water.

  "We left the island.

  " 'Better to drink this beer up home,' said Clem, 'where Mamma can cook us up some food. I'm starving. ¡¯

  "We were all pretty damned drunk before we got home, and under the influence I'd made one or two bad turns which might have kept us lost for hours.

  "As it was, we made it back before dark, and after I took the longest piss of my life I went down with the casket and the shovel to the little cemetery.

  "I was fully tuned for the slightest chill, the finest frisson, but I was feeling nothing. And I didn't see the old troop of spirits that sometimes accosted me. But it was their style to be seen from a distance. I'd never been among them.

  "I found a patch of soil that was clear and I dug easily through the moist earth. Pretty soon I had a hole about two feet deep, and the casket fitted easily there, and I filled in the earth around it and over it.

  "I put the heavy marble tombstone firmly in place.

  "I made the Sign of the Cross. I said three Hail Marys and two Our Fathers and then the old prayer:

  Let perpetual light shine upon her, O Lord,

  and may her soul and the souls of all

; the faithful departed rest in peace. Amen.

  "The new grave looked mighty little among the old coffin-sized concrete tombs, but it was still respectable and even fine.

  "When I looked up I saw Goblin by the oak tree, watching me. I was drunk and he was cold sober. I was filthy dirty. He was immaculately clean. He wasn't just appearing to me. He was studying me. And only as I looked at him did I realize that I hadn't seen him all day. I hadn't even felt him near me. I hadn't thought about him. For the last few days, I'd seldom seen him. I hadn't talked to him.

  " 'Yo, brother,' I said.

  "I walked or staggered up the slope and reached out to embrace him. He vanished and left nothing there for me to hold, and a cold feeling crept over me. But I was drunk enough to cry about nothing.

  "And Jasmine was shouting, 'Suppertime. ' Red beans and rice, gravy thick with pork fat and pork chops simmered with it.

  "It must have been around nine o'clock before I was showered and shaved, and sobered up. I came down to be with Aunt Queen and tell her what her nurse, Cindy, had been telling her for days, that she had to get up, get going and above all to take some nourishment.

  "I found her sitting up in bed against a mass of white lace-covered pillows in one of her gorgeous feather-trimmed white negligees, her glasses down on her nose as she read what appeared to be a letter of several pages.

  "Cindy, the nurse, with her usual very bright smile, was in attendance. She excused herself as I came in.

  " 'Well, I have it, beautiful boy,' Aunt Queen said. 'Come here, pull up a chair. ¡¯

  " 'Only if you eat something will I do that,' I said. 'What is it you have?¡¯

  " 'I'm way ahead of you, angel face,' she replied. 'I've drunk two cans of relatively innocuous lipids, as Cindy can verify, so I have had enough food to feed an entire Hindu village for one day. Now sit down. I have a translation here of the inscription on the island. This just arrived. ¡¯

  "I wanted to snatch the pages out of her hand, but she wouldn't allow it and read out the words,

  " 'Here sleeps Petronia, whose mortal hands once made the most beautiful of cameos, even for emperors and kings. Guard me, ye gods and goddesses whose images I rendered so well. A curse on those who attempt to disturb my resting place. ¡¯

  "She gave me the page of the letter. I read it over and over. 'Petronia,' I whispered. 'What can all this mean?' I gave the page back to her. 'Who translated it, Aunt Queen?' I asked.

  " 'A man I want you to meet, Quinn, a man who's going to change the course of your life the way Lynelle changed it, a man who's going to accompany you and me on the Grand Tour you should have had a long time ago. The man's name is Nash Penfield. He's an English professor from California, and I like him very much. ¡¯

  " 'But what if I don't like him, Aunt Queen?' I asked. 'Aunt Queen, I don't want to go to Europe yet. I don't want to leave here. What's going to happen to this place? Aunt Queen, Pops just died. We can't be making plans. ¡¯

  " 'We have to make plans, my dear boy,' she said. 'And Nash Penfield is flying here Friday. We'll have a nice dinner together and we'll see how you like him, and if you don't care for the man, which I truly cannot imagine, then we'll find someone else. But you need a tutor, Quinn, you need someone to take up where Lynelle left off. ¡¯

  " 'All right. We'll make a bargain. You get up out of bed, eat three square meals tomorrow and I'll meet Mr. Penfield. How's that?¡¯

  " 'I'll go you one better,' she said. 'You check into Mayfair Medical tomorrow for a series of tests, and I'll get up, eat breakfast and go with you, how's that?¡¯

  " 'What tests?' I asked. But I already knew. They'd do brain scans on me, MRIs, electroencephalograms, whatever they called them. They'd be looking for lesions on the temporal lobe-something physical to account for what I claimed to see and hear. I wasn't surprised, even with all the verification that Rebecca Stanford had been real and had been murdered, I wasn't surprised.

  "If anything, I was surprised that it hadn't come sooner. And I thought to myself, Well, we'll get this over with and I won't have to think about it anymore.

  " 'All right, I'll check into Mayfair Medical,' I said. 'But I won't find myself on the psychiatric ward, will I?¡¯

  " 'My boy, I despise the idea of nuthouses as much as you do,' she replied. 'But I think I'd be remiss if I didn't request certain purely medical tests to be done. As for Mayfair Medical, it's a marvel, with the finest doctors and equipment in the South. ¡¯

  " 'I know, Aunt Queen. You have to remember, Lynelle was going to work in research there. Who in the environs of New Orleans doesn't know all about Mayfair Medical? I've been there, beloved aunt, I walked those granite-tiled hallways with Lynelle. It was her dream come true, remember?¡¯

  "The fear came on me, it came on dark and strong when I thought of Lynelle in her breakneck high heels clicking on beside me through the hospital corridors, pointing out all the special features of this revolutionary clinic and hospital.

  "I remembered the smallest, most special detail -- that every ward in Mayfair Medical had broad comfortable benches along its walls, benches for the comfort of relatives and friends who were visiting with the patients. Every room was a private room. Every room had easy chairs for visitors.

  " 'Oh, it's too sad to think of poor Lynelle,' Aunt Queen said, as if she were reading my mind or my wandering eyes. 'Lynelle, Sweetheart, Pops, it's too sad, too dreadful. But we cannot take our minds off the details of life, Quinn. The details will save us. We'll have these tests done and we'll discover if there's anything to be worried about. ¡¯

  " 'Worried about? You have a letter from the stranger! You know I didn't write it or cook it up myself. I told you he was in my room, and he has been on the island since I warned him away. I burnt his books, I was so angry. And now this inscription. What can it mean? And the cameos. Why is it all connected?¡¯

  "She listened intently and affectionately.

  "I told her the vision I had had of Rebecca hanging from the rusted hook, the hook having caught her rib. I told her how I had been unconscious on the floor afterwards.

  " 'Jasmine said you fell down as if you'd been struck on the head. Your eyes never closed. And then you revived, just like that. ¡¯

  " 'Did I have a seizure out there?' I asked. 'Is that what Jasmine really saw?¡¯

  " 'She didn't see it,' said Aunt Queen. 'But we can talk about all this tomorrow afternoon on our way to Mayfair Medical. As for the mysterious intruder, we have guards everywhere. The Shed Men are in their glory. But regarding tomorrow morning. . . ¡¯

  " 'Patsy's been found and the will's going to be read,' I guessed.

  " 'That's it exactly. Now brace yourself for a scene. But I have my hopes. And I have my plans. Your grandfather was Gravier's only living son. We'll see what happens. Now you go on up now, Big Ramona's probably waiting for you. Give me a sweet kiss. I love you. ¡¯

  "I bent down to kiss her, to glory in her soft gray hair and her perfume. 'Good night, my love,' I said. 'Where's your bedfellow, Jasmine?¡¯

  " 'Oh, she is the most provoking creature. She's tired from her trip to the island. She's confused. She's soon to be our salvation, and she knows it. I think she's afraid of the challenge. ¡¯

  " 'What do you mean?¡¯

  " 'Well, who's to run this place when you and I leave?' she said with a shrug. 'Jasmine can do it. ¡¯

  "I'd never even thought of this, and it seemed so right suddenly. How many times had I gone into the bungalow to find Jasmine and come across her rapping on her computer. And who did the tours better than Jasmine?

  " 'That's good, that's really good!' I said. 'I want to talk to her. ¡¯

  " 'No, let me explain it to her,' Aunt Queen replied. 'She'll be coming later on. She's gone up to fuss in Pops' bedroom. I asked her to go through his jewelry, and she's making a night of it up there. Just tell the darling girl to stop her inventory and come down at a reasonable hour. I'll never go to sleep tonight if she's not here. ¡¯
  "Something clicked in my mind. It clicked in my body, too. Jasmine alone in Pops' bedroom.

  "I went up the stairs like a man going up to meet his bride. I looked in on Big Ramona and found her sound asleep. I went on to Pops' room.

  "The door was open.

  "His bed is a big heavy four-poster -- you saw it -- it's one of the oldest in the house. I saw Jasmine sitting on it, up against the velvet-covered pillows, and in her hand was a goblet of red wine. The bottle was on the nightstand.

  "She was dressed all foxy, in one of her tightfitting leopard-skin tops that look brilliant with her mahogany skin, and close-cropped yellow hair, and a nothing of a leather skirt. One leg was up and the other stretched out. Spike heels. Flash of white panties. You never saw a more earnest invitation. And I was the only guest.

  "I closed the door and locked it.

  "She sighed and put the glass under the lamp on the nightstand. I sat beside her and then took her in my arms. I kissed her lips and felt the immediate fire. She pushed her breasts against me. I squeezed her breasts so desperately it was a wonder I didn't hurt her. God, this is Heaven; you're in the wrong place. I slipped my hand up her leg and touched her silk panties and the heat behind them.

  " 'Pull'm down, tear'm off,' she said in my ear. 'Panties are cheap. Panties are nothing. ' She was crying. I could hear it.

  "I kissed her on the mouth again, and her tongue shot between my lips. Oh, Lord, God. I kissed her plenty, and I ripped her panties over her ankles and off her spike-heel shoes, and I cradled her foot in my hand and kissed her instep.

  "Under her breath she cried. I gobbled her wet tears.

  " 'Lord, it's wrong,' she whispered. 'I know it's so wrong. You, my baby Tarquin, but I need it so bad!¡¯

  " 'So do I, lady,' I said. 'You can't imagine!' "
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