Keith Robbins (writing prose as K.L. Slaughter) is a semiretired proofreader. His novellas’ characters Rory, Esther, and Red Top are based (somewhat loosely) on himself, his wife Paula, and their great feline companion--now age 17--whose name was not changed. The voice here is formal yet self-mocking, with a generous dose of the colloquial usually in close juxtaposition. Mr. Robbins also has written perhaps a dozen poems, and one of his latest, “Plainsong,” appeared in The Squawk Back in December 2016. He may be contacted at email@example.com
The Four-Leafed Clover
A Modern Fairy Tale
by K.L. Slaughter
In remembrance of Omar and Pearl; and thanks to Billy Thorpe for giving Rory
a voice to sing with https://youtu.be/m62gip2biWs
Composer: Harold Arlen
Artist: Billy Thorpe
Book Two: Red Top
T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding” from Four Quartets
Book Three: Esther
A.E. Housman, A Shropshire Lad
Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There
Book Four: Omar
Wallace Stevens, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”
Loren Eiseley, The Lost Notebooks of Loren Eiseley
“If you have no dreams, you shall live within them.”
—Robert Burton, 1638, The Anatomy of Melancholy
“We are free, at least, to dine as we please again tonight,” observed Esther drily, dabbing the corners of her eyes. “Who says depression is an altogether unfortuitous enterprise?” She was alluding both to her husband’s autocratic control over the dinner table and Rory’s continued absence due to an ongoing bout of what the clinicians termed dysthymia.
And so three of our four heroes enjoyed a meal that satisfied their shared criteria: the freshest ingredients, the simplest preparation, and an aesthetic attention to color and shape and texture. This last consideration did not err in the direction of fastidiousness or any kind of effete tomfoolery. (That would be Rory’s department—for instance, any one of his monochrome-themed meals: de rigueur dinner dress, linen, candles, utensils, dinnerware, foods, all—on the last occasion—black.)
Tonight’s offerings: black bean soup in a brick-red tureen; cornbread glistening with chilies mounded on an orange platter; chopped salad—speckled romaine, coarsely grated carrot, jicama, red bell pepper, brown-black gaeta olives, curls of pecorino romano—in a clear glass bowl whose sides caught the dance of flames from the huge fireplace. A few simple condiments in smaller glass dishes—torn cilantro dotted with ruby-red pomegranate seeds; chopped chives; yogurt dusted with cumin. A whole poached salmon, free of such annoying and superfluous blandishments as spice, or lemon, or, horror of horrors, garlic, served as dinner for the two dedicated carnivores. The fish, its one visible eye now glazed, nestled in a bed of fresh catnip strewn generously on a cedar plank.
Rory had not left his room for over a week. Esther, walking the grounds, noted that his curtains were drawn day and night. She had seen him but briefly during this time, while delivering some real or fancied need through a barely cracked door. She saw the unkempt clothes, the unshaved face, the sunken eyes ringed from sorrow and lack of restful sleep. He barely spoke, and then in an abashed whisper.
After dinner, the three friends gathered as usual in the great common room adjoining the dining hall. The shared wall, aside from its supporting beams and framing, and the rough-cut stone arches at either end permitting passage between the two rooms, was less a wall than a dual-fronted gigantic fireplace stretching from floor to ceiling, its twin facades fitted with outsized river rock. Arranged before this fireplace are two semicircular leather and wood sofas. The flooring here is of volcanic glass—a black obsidian with gas bubble inclusions, its rainbow translucence unsullied by uncountable footfalls.
The two rooms themselves revolve and tilt in sync with the passage of the days; thus the sun’s rising and setting, and its daily path, are always positioned precisely in the center of the long windows facing east and west. Here, too, the idiosyncratic hand of Rory is in evidence: He theorized that the sun’s apparent suspension concentrated and magnified its power and influence, much as a prism collects and then disperses light. “How could we go wrong,” he would say, “in imitating the innate wisdom of heliotropic plants?”
The living room has no artificial lighting. Any nighttime reading or writing is done either in personal rooms, where electric lamps are in common use, or collaboratively in this room, by the brilliance of the great fire. It is often here that Omar, acting as scribe, would record a client’s testimony.
Writing by the fire’s light, words already committed to the page sometimes quiver and seem to change, or to disappear entirely; sometimes the writer changes a word as it is being written, because the flickering light has introduced an ambiguity he did not know was there. Here Omar’s unblinking gaze further served his pyromancer’s art.
Tonight, as of late, the talk is of Rory. While Esther had seen little of him in nearly a fortnight, Omar and Red Top, thanks to their unfettered access to all the Castle’s rooms, had more observations to offer.
Omar spoke first, slyly purring the words: “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure-dome decree.”
The others protested: “Blackie, please!” Then the glossy feline continued:
Little Boy Blue
Come blow your horn,
The sheep’s in the meadow,
The cow’s in the corn;
Where is that boy
Who looks after the sheep?
He’s under a haystack
Will you wake him?
No, not I,
For if I do,
He’s sure to die.
A hurried glance between Esther and Red Top confirmed each one’s solo surmise: Omar had altered the last word of the nursery rhyme. Long familiar with Blackie Omar’s oblique and often oracular style, they sat in silence for some moments, their eyes softly focused on the play of shadow and light cast by the fire.
Then Red Top spoke. “When I visited yesterday at three in the morning, he seemed at first glad to see me. He stroked me firmly from head to tail, said I was the most beautiful boy in the whole wide world, no, it was not even theoretically possible that anyone could be more perfect, yes he loved me to death and even beyond—you know, the usual silly babble that somehow I can never get enough of. Then all at once he seemed to collapse into himself. I noticed the pipe on his bedside table, and the empty jade vial beside it. Soon he began ranting.”
The orange tabby paused. “You are all aware of my talent for verbatim recall, but I hesitate . . .”
“Go on,” said Esther, and Omar concurred by slitting his golden eyes and inclining his head toward the fire.
Red Top assumed a reciting voice. “There are good reasons, I suppose, why we do not cannibalize ourselves freely, or fornicate indiscriminately with consenting or otherwise individuals in the streets—though I have yet to see any reasoned refutation of these falsely tabooed lifestyle options . . .” Red Top spoke the last word in a sneering tone, conveying Rory’s bitter contempt. He then stopped, uncertain whether to continue.
“There is undoubtedly more,” Esther said.
“I am sorry; it pains me to speak further,” Red Top replied. “You know, the usual rambling about the evils of sainted motherhood, the Children of the Secret, the fiendish delight in describing imagined scenes of torture and revenge.”
“Yes, I know the territory well,” Esther said by way of conclusion. “He lives inside an unyielding horror—he cannot consciously dream, nor imagine any escape. Let us hope it will soon pass, once again. And now—a gentle good-night to us all.”
As they rose, and murmured their personal nightly fare-thee-wells, a booming and insistent knock reverberated from the entranceway. They looked at one another with alarm and foreboding—who could possibly have found their way unguided to the Castle door?
Esther and Red Top, anxious to greet the unexpected visitor, raced down the final long corridor to the front door. Their swift passage caused the flames in the wall sconces to waver as they rushed by, and flickering tongues of light fitfully illuminated the noble or depraved features of long-dead ancestors.
Exchanging nervous glances, they smoothed their hair and fur, respectively, and depressing the latch, hauled the great wooden door inward, its creaks and groans a reassuring reminder of the comforts of all things dear and familiar. Esther opened her eyes a bit wider in anticipation, and her lips parted slightly to form words of greeting.
The doorway stood empty.
Omar made his way to Rory’s room while the others answered the resounding summons at the door. The black feline, as usual, was acting on a hunch—something in the dancing patterns of the great fire that he, Esther, and Red Top had been contemplating mere minutes before—some vaguely human shape that escaped the flames and skittered across the floor, a shadow dissolving into the great shadows ringing the room—convinced him that Rory was up to no good.
So he was not surprised to find Rory’s bedroom door ajar, the room a shambles, disordered closets and drawers spilling clothes left open, his pipe and jade vial gone, a note anchored beneath a guttering candle. As his patient golden eyes drank in the details of the scene, his tail switched slowly but purposefully—a sure sign of indignation and disapproval.
Red Top and Esther, returned from answering the door, followed the sound of Omar’s voice. They caught the final verse of the nursery song:
Did you ever see such a sight in your life
As three blind mice?
Omar inclined his head toward the note on the table. Esther, displaying a practiced look of resignation, nodded to Red Top. He solemnly read Rory’s words: “Sorry for the banging and the false alarm—I needed enough distraction to make a clean getaway. I’m on walkabout. Omar can let you know if I am in any danger. Meanwhile, wait for me until the next new moon—if I do not return by then, all is lost. Your one and only.”
Esther and Red Top, at first light, examined the area outside the front entrance, and the single gravelled path leading quickly, in the space of a quarter mile, to the dense forest beyond. As they entered the woods, familiar and less familiar paths branched like the spokes of a wheel. A thick carpet of leaves sprang back quickly as they walked, leaving no visible trace of their passage. Esther turned slowly and retraced her steps to the Castle’s door, her slumped shoulders and downcast eyes sure signs of the sorrow she carried.
Red Top’s attention was drawn to a group of crows near the top of a nearby pine tree. He followed their activity intently for fully five minutes, noting that three would leave, and two return, then five leave and one return, then all leave and all save one return; and other permutations of coming and going. When the original group of twelve settled at last on the high branch, and tucked their glossy black heads in sleep, their feathers puffed out for warmth, Red Top had the answer he was seeking. Bushy tail slung low, the tip curved up, he strode confidently down the path heading due north, his footfalls nearly silent over the cushioned forest floor.
A Guest Arrives
Esther spent the day virtually alone. Red Top was gone now, too, presumably on Rory’s trail. After a small breakfast of black decaf, rye toast, and a few Pink Lady slices dusted with cinnamon, she shouldered her garden basket and headed out back to her half-acre of vegetables and flowers. After gathering red leaf lettuce, a few radishes, cherry tomatoes, and yanking a carrot and snapping a cucumber from its prickly vine, she snipped a dozen or so marigolds, taking the time to choose the colors she wanted today.
As she walked the hallway to her room, she thought she saw Omar scurrying down the stairs at the far end, but it may have been the shadow of a raven passing the huge east-facing window, its brilliant square of sunlight splayed across the landing. This bright, warm spot was a favorite hangout for Red Top—and sometimes Omar—midmorning.
She arranged the newly cut flowers in a simple glass jam jar, adding water from her bathroom faucet. She placed them near the front of a small oak table with tall turned legs, and slightly repositioned the yahrzeit memorial candles on each side. Phylacteries draped a small brass menorah. A perpetual calendar, fashioned of moveable wood blocks, showed the month, day, and year of her mother's passing—December 11, 2013. A bristling arrangement of dried flowers and plant stems covered the rest of the table. Above the shrine snugged in its recess Esther had hung a fanciful painting of her mother, palms raised, looking heavenward to her father, mother, and aunt, their welcoming arms open to receive her. This portrait was just one of many paintings, framed and unframed, Esther displayed on her walls—self-portraits, large and small, some full-body; several slightly realistic depictions of Red Top, his glorious bushy tail always prominently featured; primitive studies
of fox and crow; and a few large abstract works, monochromatic and
For six months now she lit the candles every day, letting them burn from dusk to bedtime. Sometimes she would find that Rory had lit them before her, and she would be reminded once more of the special bond her
husband and mother had had, and what a godsend that bond had been for Rory, who always felt like an orphan.
Her thoughts swirling, Esther knew the best way to pass the day would be in walking, and so she laced up her favorite trail shoes, packed some almonds and raisins and bottles of water, slung the backpack over her shoulders, and left by the Castle’s more modest rear door, again passing through her garden. She headed due south, her straw sun hat at a jaunty angle. She let the mockingbirds’ song, their swift flashing in and out of the sunlight, and the shimmering cottonwoods lining the banks of the stream she followed fill her senses to overflowing as she stepped once again into the seamless world where she truly felt at home.
Esther’s walking reveries, as often happened, made her lose all sense of time. Darkness was closing fast as she once again gained the comfort of her room, splashed cold water over her face, and felt the soothing coolness of the stone floor beneath her bare feet. She lit the candles and headed downstairs to what she imagined would be a solo dinner. Inspecting cupboards and refrigerator for likely suspects she might line up for a simple meal, she suddenly caught the sound of an angry, raised voice through the fireplace wall, a voice that sounded vaguely familiar.
Entering the great common room, Esther immediately spotted Omar lounging attentively before the fire, and a tall, gaunt stranger, shrouded entirely in black, gesticulating wildly from one of the sofas. Under cover of temporary dimming as a huge log collapsed, Red Top darted from beneath a sofa, and vanished through an archway. Here, at floor level, four bricks had been removed. The orange tabby scooted through the entrance and climbed a stairway, built of bricks laid end to end, that circled the chimney all the way to the roof.
She joined them before the fire, tucking her bare feet against the smooth leather of the second sofa. Her quiet presence, the softness of her quick appraising glance before her gaze came to rest in the fire, seemed to act as an instant sedative on the agitated man.
Then Esther spoke languidly but firmly: “Omar, please conduct our guest to the library—tonight we honor the full moon. I shall join you shortly with tea and a light repast.” She politely nodded them on their way, and then passed again through the dining hall to the kitchen beyond.
No one, save our four heroes, has walked the Castle grounds by day. Clients, often few and far between, are only escorted here by Omar or Red Top under cover of darkness. Most leave before the following sunrise; temporary lodging at the Castle is discouraged, but when it cannot be avoided, all common windows are closely curtained, guest room windows shuttered and locked, and clients’ whereabouts closely monitored. They leave only after the sun has fully set and darkness is again total, and access outside the Castle walls is strictly forbidden during their stay.
Many recall a long journey through a gloomy and seemingly endless forest, and always at the smallest sliver of the moon’s last quarter, or at the time of the new moon itself. Some remember traversing what seemed like miles of subterranean passages, twisting and turning, their only light the twin beams of Omar’s eyes as he occasionally turned to look back, and the dim but steady phosphorescence of the translucent worms and insects that carpeted the walls to find moisture and mineral sustenance.
Some more clever visitors, plotting the Castle’s exact location using the stars, sextant, and two clocks, or even satellite navigation in modern times, with the aim of retracing their steps, have always come away puzzled; indeed, for decades the best geographers, launching daytime expeditions out of curiosity, or at the behest of a particularly satisfied or dissatisfied client, have all ended their journeys at the same startling location—a nondescript shamble of boulders glinting benignly beneath the sun.
So it is difficult to prove the physical reality of the Castle, even though visitors’ descriptions tally so perfectly—the great rooms on the ground floor bisected by the imposing dual-fronted fireplace, the rooms themselves accessed by spacious entranceways to the north and south, on the south the large kitchen and pantry area, on the north a gigantic library open to the heavens with its skylight recessed all around so that the floor-to-ceiling books are protected from direct light. They marvelled, too, at the hidden entrance, behind a certain ladder of shelves, to the narrow and dimly lit passage stretching easily a quarter-mile to the massive front door with its cat’s-paw iron knocker the size of an entire feline, the claws splayed and unsheathed but dulled at their tips from centuries of use.
Visitors are always given accommodation in the same room. They describe the wide stone stairways flanking either end of the upstairs hallway and the five generously spaced doors opening to the personal rooms, three to the southeast, and two to the northwest. The middle room of the three was always the guest room. The stairways themselves, fixed firmly at the hallway ends, actually floated free of the rooms at ground level; thus from outside the Castle they looked like the slightly unfolded wings of a gigantic bird.
On the southeast bottom landing, where one would expect a door communicating to the first floor or the Castle grounds, a locked metal gate framed the archway to a roughly circular space. An inquisitive visitor striking a match or shining a torch through the gate could just distinguish a single corridor in the distance.
A newspaper account from ten years ago gives some idea of the perplexity and amazement of one particular client when confronted with the method of gaining his second-floor room, and the repose he sought after a grueling day of travel.
Who would choose to live like this? Our intrepid hosts, explaining how I must ascend to my room on the floor above, never batted an eyelash, or flicked a mischievous tail; indeed, I felt again as I had in sixth grade when teacher patiently but somewhat condescendingly explained the simple logic I had ignored in solving an equation in introductory algebra. Of course it was necessary to have a four-foot-wide circle cut in your living room’s ceiling—which wasn’t a ceiling at all but the floor of the hallway above!
And so at evening’s end, after a thoroughly delicious but idiosyncratically served dinner, and gracious conversation before the fire with my four hosts which, innocuous and playful though it seemed, left me feeling oddly vulnerable and somewhat confused, I gamely placed my foot in the first rung of the wooden ladder that dropped silently from the semicircular panels above my head, and climbed the fifty-nine steps to the landing above, gratefully finding my room and the privacy I needed to sort my thoughts.
Rory and Esther—and occasionally the felines as well—had their own secret access on the southeast and northwest stair landings. The “doors” accessing the first floor were actually under one’s feet, disguised as intricately carved cherrywood insets seamlessly surrounded by stone slab. Twisting one of twelve raised scarabs dropped and retracted the door, and steps appeared leading to a narrow causeway encircling the living and dining rooms. Because of the constantly revolving twinned rooms, Rory had marked the outer entrances with bold splashes of blue paint; and since the entrances stood 180 degrees apart, our heroes would never have to traverse the inner corridor, which allowed the rooms to spin freely, more than the distance mapped out by a 90-degree arc—if they chose the right direction. The open sky above the causeway, that narrow strip of light defined all around by the great outer walls, helped with orientation as well. Finding an entrance, they would simply step through the inner wall into either the dining hall or the living room, and the decorative wainscoting, the most striking bird’s-eye maple, would close silently behind them.
And Omar and Red Top had even more ways of coming and going.
Rory wandered aimlessly along the forest paths. More than once he stopped, closed his eyes, and spun himself in circles until he felt thoroughly dizzy. Then he would simply continue walking in whatever direction he was pointed. The dense forest canopy allowed little sunlight through; it was possible to get a general idea of the sun’s position in the sky, but to distinguish northwest from southwest, say, was truly difficult.
Soon he felt a bit disoriented, as lost as possible in a territory he had known for so many years, and stopped to rest awhile on a comfortable boulder at the edge of a swiftly running stream. Belly down, he drank handsful of icy water, and splashed his face for refreshment. The warm boulder cradling his back, the last warmth of the day’s sun funneling through a rare break in the trees, he lit his opium pipe, and soon the world around him glowed with meaning and luminous possibility. He could hear the faintest sound, detect the slightest movement, even watch a column of ants march single file, their antennae waving, along the far bank of the stream as it meandered out of sight.
A thundering gallop across the creek seemed to be swallowed so quickly in silence that Rory doubted his ears; was the jet black bull he saw, standing in the day’s last circle of light like a punched-out hole where starry sky would shine through in a few hours, a figment of his dope-addled imagination? And the ancient crone, likewise attired in black, who suddenly appeared before him, was she too a mere phantom? The first thing that Rory noticed about her was the strange quality of her eyes—they seemed to transfix him, rivet him to the ground like a specimen impaled and mounted by a dispassionate entomologist. And yet he could see clear through them to the sky beyond. She chanted a spell in a singsong voice that entered the silence so quickly, like the achingly beautiful notes of the meadowlark, that his attention was immediately and fully focused. Rory felt his body gradually lose its weight, and then he felt the panic of pure, free-floating consciousness, and the overwhelming desire to find a body to fill, to be incarnate again.
The crone’s words, so quickly swallowed in the silence, yet lingered in the air, shimmering glyphs of dusty light dancing before Rory’s eyes. His eyes then travelled down the body he now found himself in, and he marvelled at the sleek glossy coat, the four massive hooves, and moving, felt the giddy power of muscle and sinew. Drinking deeply at the stream, he knew for the first time in his life how it felt to truly satisfy his thirst. Examining his reflection in a calm stretch of water, he noted with alarm, and then a cunning sense of entitlement, the horns jutting from his forehead. Otherwise, he had kept his human face.
He caught the glint of jade in the dying light, crossed the stream, and found an intricately carved jade flute where he had carelessly left his opium vial. Reaching to pick it up, he felt his weight shift to his rear legs, and discovered himself standing upright, the flute to his lips, his immaculately manicured fingers, their strength and softness a source of amazement, fitting themselves to the various stops as if they had done so from time immemorial.
As his last notes pulled the silence after themselves, he no longer heard the night sounds of owl and cricket, the faint rustling of leaf and bush as fox or otter padded past. Even the loud gurgling of the creek he lay next to seemed to recede and vanish, as if the stream itself were suddenly miles away.
And then he slept the deep dreamless sleep of the child, the murderer, the lover, and the last thing he remembered before drifting off was the wild cackling of the crone, as she unfurled her fist and threw a billion diamonds against the blue-black sky.
Rory slaked his morning thirst at the stream, packed his new flute in his rucksack, and carried it around his neck. Immediately he returned to all fours, and began to follow the stream, now visibly widening and slowing. Within a few minutes, he found himself at the forest’s boundary. A great grassy meadow stretched nearly to the horizon, where he could just discover the unmistakeable outlines of human habitation—houses, steeples, flags, the curling smoke of breakfast fires drifting lazily into the palest blue sky.
Again he found a comfortable boulder, and again, this time after simply visualizing it, he drew the flute to his lips and let his delicate fingers dance over the stops.
The notes jumped in and out of silence so completely, so suddenly, that the women who gathered to dance—how had they arrived so quickly?—seemed to move almost like automatons, like puppets on invisible strings. Young girls in the first blush of womanhood, sensible matrons who left husbands and young children behind in the village, even widows bent from age but still kicking up their heels, all followed Rory and the sound of his flute deep into the forest.
Esther + Omar Forever
Fourteen years ago, Esther first noticed the arrival of a young, full-grown, strapping black cat on the Castle grounds. His brilliant golden eyes were slightly almond shaped, and he had a splayed way of walking that Esther later discovered to be the result of two additional toes on each of his front feet. And he moved like the wind! Esther more than once could swear he simply vanished from one side of the garden and magically reappeared on the other. At first she called him Chessie, after the famous Cheshire Cat.
He was obviously feral, and it took months of gradual rapprochement and patience before Esther, Rory, and Red Top—who would arrive on the scene three weeks later—could count him as friend and ally. For his part, Omar was glad to find a caring family and enjoy the luxuries of dependable food and shelter. Like Red Top, he had been abandoned as a kitten; and though Red Top was found quickly by Rory in a little wicker basket deep in the forest, his healthy lungs boldly announcing his presence to the world, Omar had had to fend for himself from a very early age.
How Omar gained his divining skills at pyromancy, and why he always spoke in rhymes or riddles, our other heroes could never discover, for Omar totally lacked the art of human conversation at which Red Top was so adept. The orange tabby, who had the added advantage of being able to speak directly with Omar, was no wiser. “If I bring up the subject, he just looks at me as if I had lost my mind,” he declared. It was evident that he could hear, for his eyes and ears and the inclination of his head tracked the spoken word intently. Whether he understood, or what exactly he understood, and even the possibility that he understood so much and so effortlessly as to be truly psychic, were constant subjects of debate among Esther, Rory, and Red Top. His talents as scribe, made possible through the prehensile facility afforded by his extra digits, were impressive. Suffice it to say, his seemingly off-the-wall responses often proved to clarify a muddied present, and even illuminate an uncertain future.
Omar had been visibly weakening for nearly a year. Though his senses remained sharp, his appetite somewhat less eclectic but undiminished—especially for freshly caught and poached salmon, which Esther adorned with sprigs of catnip from her garden—and his divining skills as great as ever, still a crippling arthritis limited his mobility more and more. Esther eventually fashioned a special bed for him in the sunniest part of her garden—a thick cushion of always fresh pine needles. Omar loved the smell of their sharp resins released by the sun, and the sun’s gentle warmth eased his aches
Then one autumn morning, after Esther collected pine boughs from the woods to the north of the Castle, and went to Omar’s garden lair to refresh his bedding, he was simply gone.
Even with the added search efforts of her husband and Red Top, Esther never found her beloved Blackie’s remains. Weeks and months passed, and they found no evidence: no telltale smell of decay, no skeleton picked clean by carrion crows.
Perhaps, she reasoned, he had sensed the nearness of winter’s approach, for indeed temperatures plummeted and early winter storms arrived within days of his disappearance. Perhaps his pain was such that he did not want to face another winter, and with the proverbial talent of his kind, he had found a truly hidden place to die. Tame as he had become, he was still most comfortable living outdoors, and typically would only venture inside the Castle on special request—as for a birthday or holiday celebration—or to offer his divining skills for a particularly difficult client before the great roaring fire.
That winter proved especially long and harsh, and Esther passed many a sad and gray day remembering and missing her feline companion. She missed his loving and playful eyes, how they would half close as she spoke words of endearment; the clickety-clack of his toenails across the garden flagstones; even his rough style of play when Esther would withdraw a “bloody stump” (her term) from rubbing his belly a little too long! He was always a biter, but usually showed good judgment and restraint.
Spring, when it finally arrived, did so with such a vengeance that it took our heroes’ breath quite away—and set their hearts to singing once more. Esther, after long anticipation, spent long hours every morning working in her garden—clearing debris, preparing the soil, planting seeds and seedlings in plots and patterns she had designed over the winter months. On a glorious morning in early May, as she finished planting the young herbs she had started from seed indoors, she could not help the tears that fell as she tamped down the last catnip plant. Turning to the task she had been avoiding for so long—clearing the now musty and matted pine boughs that had been Omar’s bed—she dropped her trowel and screamed.
Omar lounged on his old bed, half-lidded eyes tracking her every move.
For the men and boys of the village, tracking Rory and his entourage was a simple task. Even where the ground was hardest and barest of fallen leaves, even crossing and recrossing streams, the heavy-hoofed minotaur and his scores of devoted followers left an easy trail.
And the posse, too, could tell they were gaining on their quarry as the music from Rory’s flute, a simple eight-note refrain, grew louder and louder. Then a curious thing happened: the men and boys, like their wives and girlfriends, mothers and sisters and daughters, seemed to fall under the music’s spell. What began as an angry crusade, a bristling phalanx of clubs and knives and pistols rushing in vigilante pursuit, slowly but surely changed to a leisurely but focused search, and warlike shouts were replaced by bantering story and song. Soon too, the path behind them was littered with discarded weapons, and flasks of whiskey and wine exchanged hands freely.
The light gradually increased, and the search party found itself on the verge of a huge, almost perfectly circular meadow. The women and girls, their hands joined, also formed a circle and moved clockwise, swaying slowly in unison, first to the left, then to the right, so they became an undulating wave of white and yellow and pink ribboned hats, and swirling dresses of deepest ruby red, robin’s-egg blue, emerald green, pearly white.
Rory sat cross-legged in the center, his eyes closed, his palms open to the sky. His stillness was so complete that an occasional bluejay would land on his shoulder or forearm, and boldly harvest a loose thread to weave into its nest. The women continued circling, and the men fell silent.
Rory remembered reaching the middle of the field. Was that a high-pitched shriek or moan he heard, or just the howling wind weaving its way through the highest branches of the pines? Then he felt a great wrenching and tearing in his body, and watched a large black shadow scurry for the cover of the woods. He looked down to find himself in his old familiar human body, his rucksack dangling comically about his neck, and the flute once again become his beloved jade vial. He began whistling the flute’s refrain, and soon the girls and women, though still agog at his transformation, joined hands and began circling the meadow. Rory noticed too, just before placing the opium pipe to his lips, that more and more of the women were whistling, humming, even improvising words to his melody.
And then he drew lungful after lungful of sweet acrid smoke. Soon he entered a great banquet hall, and solicitous hosts rushed to greet him. “All hail King Rory!” chorused a thousand voices.
Rory reclined amid burgundy velvet cushions, with silver bowls and trays of delicacies at every hand—truly, at this point he envied the multihandedness of insects and arachnids—plump black cherries, icy cold and beaded with moisture; perfectly formed melon balls, a subtly colored mix of cantaloupe, honeydew, Persian, Charentais, Crenshaw and casaba; a heady assortment of whimsically arranged cheeses (Rory was especially intrigued by what looked to be a smoked gouda, its rind replaced by densely packed, coarse tricolor pepper—ingesting the generous half-sphere, he was disappointed in his appraisal but not the reality—it was an agreeable and suitably aged havarti, cedar smoked); and whole loaves of superbly crusty bread, from the densest darkest rye generously apportioned with caraway, to the snow-drifted interiors of fabulous French baguettes—all meant to be roughly torn by the diner. A low black table with raised rim displayed today’s wine selection—one chilled, two not—and several cut-glass carafes of fresh juices nestling in mounds of shaved ice—Rory, sampling the choices, noted pomegranate-raspberry, cucumber (surprisingly refreshing with its hint of heat, supplied no doubt from the flotilla of black chiles bobbing on top), and if he were not mistaken, mango thinned generously with lime, its tartness falling just short of masking the underlying sweetness.
Never had Rory seen such a profusion of cut flowers. Could he be on the Subcontinent? The amount and variety of marigolds practically filled the room, even adorning the walls and hanging in long streamers from the
ceiling. Can any other even approach the boldness of their scent, the sheer intoxication they induce? And here and there, other splashes of color—red roses, dwarf golden sunflowers, and purple lilacs—dotted the predominantly orange palette.
Rory’s servers—three women of varying age—seemingly lingered a little longer than necessary when refreshing a beverage or refilling his plate, and
he could not help but notice their subtly bold bendings and languorous demeanor, their judiciously exposed flesh, and the quick but unmistakeably meaningful eye contact they all made with him.
And so it came as no surprise that as the evening wound down, the very same trio of women conducted King Rory in leisurely fashion to one of the many private rooms dotting the perimeter of the banquet hall; as the four squeezed their way through an archway that could barely accommodate one, they giggled with childlike abandon.
Rory woke to the emptiness of the meadow. He could hear bursts of laughter as the last of the departing men and women, girls and boys, headed back through the forest to their village. He did not envy them the lust his flute had awakened.
He remembered his own visions in perfect detail. Tonight the full moon bathed the field in a light that must have been stardust—the trees and sky seemed so incredibly close and yet so far away, and his body and mind felt emptied out, open to anything and everything.
For the first time in his life, he felt absolutely fearless.
His eyes tracked the faintest rustling at the edge of the woods. Red Top paced quickly to his side. “We must return home at once,” the orange tabby advised, “Omar smells a rat—how large he is not sure.” He dashed off without a further word, his tail streaming low, and Rory followed.
In the Library
You can imagine Esther’s surprise and delight on finding Red Top in the library as well. She could only surmise that he had reentered the Castle as he had left—through the great front door, again traversing the portrait gallery of rogues and saints (and variations thereof), and accessed the library via the rotating partition that shelved modern American fiction, M through Z.
Even though she was burning with curiosity, she knew this was not the time to discuss family business. Red Top, perhaps superfluously, shot her a warning glance, thumped his tail for good measure, and continued talking.
“. . . if indeed that were the case. I apologize for my seemingly unorthodox entrance—I assure you I am a trusted member of the household, and you may speak freely in my presence.”
His partner in conversation had been soliciting our heroes for many months now. What began as several polite but increasingly insistent phone calls, usually handled encouragingly by Rory or Esther, had of late become a nonstop avalanche of thrice-daily calls, displaying an escalating frenzy of threat and vituperative fury—especially since husband and wife had delegated Omar to speak for them, and the feline’s riddling talk had exhausted the bill collector’s last nerve. Finally he demanded a personal interview with Rory and Esther, and managed to glean from Omar’s oracular response just how he might go about meeting his guide and gaining, at last, access to the Castle and its fiscal scofflaws.
The collector was not yet in a sanguine enough frame of mind to talk business. Clearly the initial calming influence of Esther had worn off while he awaited her arrival in the library, and once again he jerked about nervously, and recapitulated his tale in alternating bursts of shouts and whispers. “You cannot fathom my horror! The passage, dim beyond all imagining, grew narrower and narrower. I stumbled on an outcropping in the floor, and fell heavily against the wall. Immediately a great host of squirming creatures covered my hair, my face, and seemed especially to seek the moisture of my mouth and eyes. Madly brushing them off, and stamping them beneath my feet, I turned to my guide”—here he cast a withering glance at Omar—“for assistance, and so I expected, apology and commiseration. Instead,” he went on, and here his voice reached a fever pitch of incredulity and rage, “the black devil simply turned tail and continued on!” At this point the visitor, risen from his chair, began shaking his fist demonstratively in Omar’s direction, and it was only the distraction of Esther, pushing a tea-cart laden with samovar, creamer, jars of black currant jam and honey, and baskets piled high with cakes, scones, and cucumber sandwiches, that calmed him sufficiently that any semblance of nonviolent social intercourse might continue.
“Let us enjoy our tea,” she offered soothingly, “and then perhaps we can make some mutually satisfactory progress on these irksome financial matters.”
But it was the sudden entrance of Rory, again through the revolving bookshelf, that truly seemed to focus the agitated visitor. Omar, more attuned to the nuances of facial expression than his more verbal companions, noted with suspicion the set line of the guest’s jaw, the gleam of triumph in his eye.
It all unfolded in mere seconds—Esther’s glad rush to her husband’s side, the arc of the dagger toward Rory’s heart, the bloody scream of the collector as Red Top’s razor-sharp claws dug deep into his face, the knife skittering uselessly to the floor, and the flash of black coat-tails escaping through the still-open bookshelf, Red Top in hot pursuit.
Our three heroes hesitated not a second, and practically fell over one another as they, too, gave chase.
Rounding the final bend in the corridor, they could see in the distance the front door standing wide open, and the full moon spotlighting a huddled ball of orange just inside. “My darling boy!” Esther wailed, and hastened to
Red Top, after surgeries to his jaw and to stop internal bleeding, and taping to immobilize four broken ribs—injuries from apparent repeated kicking—was practically housebound. It was extremely painful for him to move at all. Rory, too, was on the mend. His back had given way during the chase, and he limped after Esther and Red Top as she carried her gravely injured friend to her room and nursed him as best she could while Omar rushed off to summon the doctor.
On the sunniest of days, Esther would prepare a bed for him at the top of the south stairway, or carry him carefully to the garden and Omar’s old, newly freshened, pine bough lair. And Omar kept his friend perfectly groomed.
“Who else could it be,” said Rory, “but Grinfels himself who insinuated his way into the Castle? Who else has such a stake in eliminating me?”
The master predator, the heretofore faceless white whale Rory had been pursuing for years, had slipped through their clutches once again. Rory relived again the great angers and sorrows of the long line of clients they had served over the years—all friends or relatives of the young men and women and children who lost their souls, even their lives, caught up in Arthur Grinfels’ vast sex trafficking network. And this time, too, really hit home—Rory had been careless, had risked his life and the lives of those he loved.
As he brought Red Top catnip and a plate of his favorite snacks to the garden, and the orange tabby slit his eyes in thanks—it was still too painful to speak—and relaxed as best he could under the gentlest of strokes down his spine, Rory’s heart cried out at the reality of his brave friend’s long suffering. A steely resolve formed in his mind: This would not go unanswered.
A Change of Heart
“To believe yourself brave is to be brave; it is the one only essential thing.”
—Mark Twain, 1896, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc
Winter arrived, and Red Top, after healing through a graciously long Indian summer, now rarely went outdoors, instead preferring to spend the shorter days resting before the fire in the great common room. Omar occasionally would recite poetry from a seemingly inexhaustible memory (Red Top especially liked García Lorca and the Beats), and Esther and Rory both enjoyed relaxing in casual conversation with their sweetest of friends.
Typically Esther or Rory would bring him there when they rose in the morning; although he was sufficiently recovered to walk a few moments at a time, it was still necessary to carry him between floors. Red Top slept in either of their rooms, seemingly arbitrarily, and on the nights when the couple shared the same room, the orange tabby’s choice was then narrowed as to which party he would favor by hogging their side of the bed.
Today Esther settled him on a child-sized down quilt she had designed and stitched for her infant son, Jack, who had bequeathed it on his twenty-first birthday to Omar and Red Top. Against a blue-gray background, a stark black tree with eight to twelve branches holding one to three generic black birds, their plumage lit by single bold yellow eyes, and beaks and claws of orange, filled each of the sixteen panels of the coverlet, and its plain backing was a nubby raw silk of celery green.
She fluffed the bedding and placed it near the archway whose line of sight led directly through the dining hall to the smaller archway to the kitchen beyond, where she soon busied herself brewing tea and coffee, and setting poppyseed scones and corn muffins to bake. Rory, meanwhile, tended the fire, and soon had it blazing steadily, the explosive snap of pine resin punctuating the stillness of the morning.
Omar, at some point in the last few years, had developed the initially aggravating but ultimately endearing—or at least amusing—custom of occasionally falling asleep while reciting a poem. Curiously enough, when he continued the next day—or after a week had passed—it would always be exactly where he had left off, even if it happened to be in the middle of a line or part way through a single word. Today he resumed with the final lines of Eliot’s fourth quartet:
. . . in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always--
The settling of a heavy log in the fireplace obscured his soft voice for a while. And then:
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
Our four heroes did not break the silence that followed for fully a minute; only the fire sounds—the steady dull roar of combustion and updraft, the fitful crackling and hiss of pine boughs—and the occasional rattling of a windowpane in a gust of wind, or the subtle groans of the old house settling, could be heard. Each seemed lost in reverie, each felt the quixotic beauty of the poet’s final prayer.
And then Esther announced breakfast. Rory and Omar helped Red Top to his feet, and the brave tabby walked slowly but surely to his place at the table. A fried kipper surrounded by rosettes of Neufchâtel cream cheese graced his plate, and he launched in with gusto.
Fourteen years earlier, as the sun’s strength lessened day by day, the heady smell of the year’s carpet of decaying leaves grew fainter and fainter, and our three heroes stiffened their spines in anticipation of another long winter, Rory, on a date in mid November, could be found scouring the woods that stretched north from the Castle’s great front door. Esther had tasked him with finding a particular herb she felt would prove useful in the questioning of certain clients, those whose long exposure to abuse had left them doubting the validity of their memories.
The daylight was quickly fading, twilight breezes were springing up, and above the creek’s plash and gurgle Rory distinctly heard the peremptory yowls and plaintive mewings of a feline who would not be ignored. Nestled among the boulders and gravel on the near bank, instinctively enjoying the last radiant heat from the stones, his mouth a perfect circle of outrage and demand, an orange tabby kitten, outsized ears and feet waiting for nature to play catch-up, fixed Rory’s eyes with a look both cunning and artlessly innocent.
For Rory, it was love at first sight. Gathering the future Red Top in his arms, he was taken aback at the tabby’s first words: “There is a patch of ginseng beneath the cottonwood on the far bank. See?” And he indicated a small bunch of shrivelled leaves by flicking the tip of his bushy tail. Rory leapt the stream at its narrowest point, and trudged back to the great tree, its gnarled roots inseparable from the creek bed. As the kitten clung fiercely to his shoulder, he harvested the plant, roots and all, recrossed the creek, and tossed the herbs into the wicker basket that had served as Red Top’s last known address. Then homeward they headed through the fast gathering dusk.
Esther’s body language, as she quickly sized up the situation, could not have been clearer, and if the arms crossed over chest, staccato tapping foot, clenched jaw, and blazing eyes did not provide enough information, the first words out of her mouth erased any uncertainty: “That animal is not staying here!”
Rory, by now hopelessly smitten and instantly aware of the legal leverage Esther’s refusal would grant him in any theoretical custody battle in the near or distant future, stuck resolutely by his guns: “If he goes, I go too!” he declared with more than a hint of theatricality, and waited patiently for Esther’s response.
It was not long in coming. “That could be arranged,” she oozed sarcastically, and strode angrily from the room. Rory, a little perplexed and very much amused, sat in one of the library’s voluminous leather chairs, Red Top curled comfortably on his lap, and pulled the first book that caught his eye from the nearest shelf. It was Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals.
That evening, after a mostly silent and unusually brief dinner, Esther announced that she was not feeling well, and would be retiring for the night. She conveyed her usual gracious good-night to Omar, complete with attentive strokes from head to tail, but favored Rory with only curt mumbling and the merest peck on the cheek.
Rory and the two felines then relaxed before the fire in the next room. Red Top was clearly pleased at the prospect of having a big brother, and Omar, for his part, was helpful and polite but seemed to keep a certain distance, undoubtedly in deference to the divided opinions of master and mistress as to the domicile status of the new arrival.
Suddenly Omar bolted from the sofa, and vanished through the maple wainscoting. Rory had scarcely begun parsing the possible motives for this strange behavior before Omar again swept into the room, his eyes flashing, the words spilling from his lips--
Ring-a-round the rosie
A pocket full of posies
We all fall down
Rory rushed to Esther’s bedside, Red Top clinging to his lapels with all his might. He found his wife delirious with burning fever, the bedclothes twisted and kicked away.
Esther’s fever, thankfully, was acute and passed quickly, never to return. While it took the worst of her symptoms with it—the shortness of breath, the restless tossing and turning, the fever spikes followed by intense shuddering chills—Esther was little more than a frail husk for the better part of a fortnight before she gradually, almost imperceptibly, began to turn the corner.
On an unnaturally warm day at the end of November, as the mercury climbed to an incredible 70 degrees at noon, Rory, at Esther’s request, installed her in a comfortable armchair at the top of the south stairway. Here a brilliant quadrangle of sunlight covered the landing for perhaps four hours in the winter months. As he tucked the light wool blanket around her, and mentally noted her preferences for today’s brunch, they were both startled by the sudden appearance of Red Top, who leapt onto Esther’s lap and nonchalantly placed his paw inside her hand. Instantly he fell asleep, and a loud rumbling purr, worthy of a lion cub, filled the hallway. Esther, too, soon dozed off, and for the first time since her illness, a relaxed smile played about her lips.
Road to Nowhere
An exhaustive search of the woods to the north of the Castle in the wake of Grinfels’ disappearance turned up no clues as to the archvillain’s eventual destination, or even the path he took. After numerous forays by each of our three heroes alone and in various combinations, the four friends assembled on the last day in April—Red Top at last fully healed and as robust as ever—for a final sweep through the roughly five-square-mile area ending at the meadow whose far margin marked the town of Clover.
They began at dawn, the four fanning out to individually search the roughly drawn quadrants they had mapped in the library months before, relying both on historical documents in the Castle’s collection, and early explorers’ guides from the Clover public library and the private collections of a few citizens.
Red Top’s quadrant was bounded by the creek to the west, and a transition zone, fairly well demarcated, from aspen and cottonwood to pine and cedar on the east. He passed a familiar group of boulders lining the stream, and scanned the small gravelly beach for tasty grasshoppers and crickets enjoying the morning sun. Spotting a particular boulder with its cozy mini-cave, he remembered this as his spot, the exact location that Rory had found him so many years ago, and he sighed at the wisdom and folly of his youth, and at how often he had confused them.
He decided to search through the creek bed itself, which was nearly dry in some places. The spring rains were late in coming this year, and where the water ran, it ran slowly, and never more than a few inches deep. Red Top was not afraid of water, and who knows, he might stumble on a minnow or crawdad snack, or even a crunchy dragonfly when the sun grew stronger.
Around the next bend, as the creek angled east for a distance, intermittent gleams caught his eye; at first he thought there was a pattern, a code to be deciphered, and he stood perfectly still, alert to the possibility that he might not be alone. After a few minutes, he moved cautiously forward, and quickly discovered the source of the mysterious flashing—an enamelled locket, gold-backed with filigreed chain and broken clasp, lay entwined in the undergrowth on the stream’s right bank, the pendant itself partly submerged and bobbing lazily in the current.
Omar’s search area adjoined Red Top’s, and the orange tabby knew he would need his friend’s manual dexterity to both disentangle the jewelry and secure it about his neck for safe transport. His booming call echoed through the forest, and soon Omar was by his side. With the locket now cinched at Red Top’s neck, who as discoverer naturally claimed bragging rights, the two felines headed north by northeast, on a trajectory they felt would unite them first with Esther, and eventually with Rory.
Esther, for her part, was feeling keenly disheartened by her fruitless search. She had always prided herself on what others considered her uncanny ability in remembering not only the exact location of any number of objects, but also noticing the slightest change in their appearance. She had walked these woods thousands of times, and it was rare that more than a month would pass between repeat visits to the same trail. Where this pine tree overhung the path, the nearest branch required anyone over four feet tall to stoop for clear passage. Esther knew every twig on that branch, and if any had been snapped off, she would notice it. She could detect the slightest bruising of tall grasses along the trail through small clearings. Even the faintest trace of human passage by shod foot could not escape her scrutiny.
So seeing Red Top that day was a boon to her spirits. After praising him to the heavens, and then allotting fair time to Omar, she removed the pendant and chain and began examining it as they moved on. Soon they caught sight of Rory, face down on a narrow trail whose right border dropped precipitously two hundred feet to a small meadow below. Magnifying glass in hand, he was studying irregularities at the trail’s edge—suspiciously worn areas where a passerby may have slipped and inadvertently left a partial imprint. Hearing the rustle of approaching feet, he stood and refocused his eyes on the middle distance.
“Anyone for lunch?” he boomed. “I have good reports of the Gilded Lion in Clover.”
Our heroes’ appetites were mighty and healthy after a full morning of trudging hither and yon, and the toll of constant mental and sensory alertness also stoked their hunger. Red Top and Omar opted to share what their waiter promised was a generously sized tuna melt, after resolving to their satisfaction that the salad had been prepared with only a modicum of mayonnaise, a mere sprinkling of chopped walnuts and apple, and no paprika or pepper. Rory, whose ample girth served as honest advertisement for his often gluttonous ways, volunteered to dispose of the remaining slabs of French bread.
Esther ordered a panini served oozing with baby Swiss, and layered with arugula, beefsteak tomato, and caramelized onion. Rory chose double cheeseburger and fries and a side of coleslaw. The slaw was a visual delight, the huge mound of red and white cabbage in its pearly dressing, with coarsely ground black pepper, brilliant grated carrot, golden raisins, and roasted almond halves, ringed with overlapping slices of fresh mango dotted with pomegranate seeds.
The day was just warm enough for outdoor dining, and Esther’s attention was drawn to a group of three fashionably dressed women seated on the far side of the patio. From time to time they would glance toward our heroes’ table, and Esther thought she could detect the slightest flushing of Rory’s features when they huddled closer together and erupted in peals of laughter. “Do you know those women?” she asked her husband in a seemingly nonchalant manner that did not fool Rory for a minute. He appeared to study them closely for a while, and then shrugged offhandedly.
“I must remind them of someone young and dashing,” he offered modestly, and then turned full attention to his remaining burger and fries. “Shall we order dessert?”
Omar Points the Way
The first anniversary of Omar’s miraculous return was fast approaching, and Esther and Red Top met in the garden late that afternoon to begin planning the gala celebration set for May 4. Omar and Rory had repaired to the library with the enamelled locket to study it for any possible link to Grinfels, and the sight of Omar, magnifying glass firmly in paw, would have raised many an eyebrow in an uneducated audience.
“I know we have been over this question many times, and from many perspectives,” said Red Top, “but I have never asked you directly. How would you explain—if you had to stake a million dollars on it—Omar’s seeming return from the dead?”
Esther finished attaching the last of three long streamers she had designed for the party. “I will gladly answer, my dear friend, on one condition—you answer the same question for me.”
“I knew there would be a trick,” the orange tabby replied, thumping his tail good-humoredly, and slitting his eyes in agreement. “You go first.”
Esther paused, and spent several moments silently observing the life of the garden as night began washing the sky of color—the first moths began circling the four-o’-clock blossoms as they opened; in a far corner the curlicued bobbing heads of a line of baby quail following their mother dowsed for nightcrawlers in a freshly tilled patch of ground; Omar’s pine bough lair, she noted, needed fresh branches; and Red Top rolled head over heels in a stand of catnip nearby, patiently waiting for her answer.
“I believe he met with a powerful shaman, one who could not only heal his body but restore his youth as well.”
“So in a sense you would see him as a kind of Christ?” Red Top asked, pensively moving the tip of his tail.
“I suppose,” Esther laughed, “with the proviso that he has no followers, and no worshippers. But he does speak in parables.”
“Amen,” agreed Red Top. “And I will stipulate that your views are not without merit.” Here the feline paced nervously for a while, seemingly trying to steel his resolve to speak further. Finally he settled directly across from her, wrapped his tail firmly about his legs, and looked her squarely in the eye.
“Despite all appearances,” he said clearly but softly, as if perhaps afraid of being overheard, “he is a golem. With this difference—he is not animated dust or clay. His physical reality is a product of our collective imaginations. Put another way, our love for him was strong enough to bring him back to this world. And have you never suspected another motive for his Saturday absences this past year?”
Her answers would have to wait for another time—for fully ten minutes she wept silently, her unblinking gaze fixed on the rising half moon, whether in sorrow or joy, perhaps none would ever know. Then she walked alone to her room.
Esther bathed and dressed slowly for dinner. As she lit the memorial candles, and rearranged the early daisies she had picked from the meadow after lunch, she thought again of Red Top’s words, and wondered how he had arrived at that strange conclusion. A golem, no less! She could not help but shudder as the vague images from stories her grandmother had read her—Esther still kept the tattered volume of Yiddish folktales on the same shelf as the Brothers Grimm—flickered through her mind, and for a moment she was four years old again, the soft raspy sound of her grandmother’s voice reading her a bedtime story echoing softly in the room—this very room, which had then been her mother’s, and was now her own.
She resolved to visit the library after dinner, and somehow manage to remove without detection a few volumes of Judaica she had in mind—she specifically recalled Rabbi Loew’s The Kabbala in 16th-Century Prague, and eagerly awaited its instruction. Judah Loew ben Bezalel, although primarily remembered for his controversial views on the real-world power of Kabbalistic ritual, was also acknowledged by many as the creator of the first golem, which, according to legend—this Esther remembered from her bedtime stories—was disabled every Friday night in preparation for the Sabbath.
Even though he had ascertained the quality of the locket’s gold backing and delicately filigreed chain—both were 18-karat—and from various details of design and construction had confirmed its true Victorian provenance, Rory could make no progress in linking it to any current owner, much less the archfiend himself. His written notes, in their brevity and staccato rhythm, perhaps conveyed a sense of his frustration:
Locket oval, 1-3/4 in by 3/4 in. Face carnelian guilloché enamel. Inner & outer backs & chain unengraved 18k gold. Hinged right, opens to B&W portrait young girl, abt 12 y/o. Point-cut diamonds, each 1/8 in diam & pos NWSE, extend above & below bevelled glass slip. Prelim vis analysis dates photo to last dec, 20th cent
A doting mother, in all likelihood, had removed her own girlish portrait from the family heirloom, replaced it with her daughter’s, and proudly handed it on at graduation or marriage. Or a father, Rory theorized, pondering the fate of the trinket with its old-fashioned portrait of a young woman reputed to be his great-grandmother, had noted his daughter’s penchant for retro clothing and accessories and decided to surprise her at her quinceañera.
Omar, however, was not so sanguine as to the mundane innocence of the locket. As we have seen, he had spent some time examining the piece with the aid of a powerful magnifying glass, and he countered Rory’s summation, by now addressed to a larger audience including Esther and Red Top, with observations—however oblique—of his own:
Take glass in hand
And westward scan.
Then scan again, and again--
Such youthful skin
Would not be lined.
As Rory and Red Top stared slack-jawed at Omar, Esther took the opportunity to remove Rabbi Loew’s tome—thankfully topping a vertical stack—and enfold it in The New York Times Sunday Styles section. “Omar has certainly given us food for thought,” she observed. “Meanwhile, I must catch up on the wedding vows, and prefer to rest undisturbed. Shall we dine late, say at eight-thirty?”
“Before you go,” Rory added quickly, “one question, and it is a long shot—when Grinfels was here, did you notice any jewelry? I could not see past that confounded antique collar.”
“Oh my, I thought this was general knowledge. Thanks to his scrawny neck, I could glimpse a gold chain if he moved his head a certain way.”
Rory breathed a sigh of relief, and then offered a gruff but grateful admonition. “Remember, my dear, that for visual acuity we are as mere mortals in company of a goddess.”
Omar and Red Top slit their eyes in agreement.
New Man About Town
Grinfels, rounding the final bend in the corridor, glanced over his shoulder and saw that Red Top was gaining on him. Just as he reached the front door and threw it wide, the determined feline made a final leap and landed squarely on the back of the would-be assassin’s neck, screeching at the top of his lungs and raking and biting flesh as savagely as he could muster, aiming with ancient instinct for his prey’s jugular. The enraged villain managed to grasp the fearless tabby by the scruff of the neck and hurl him to the ground. He then turned and kicked and stomped our hero senseless before bolting for the woods.
The collector (we may accurately call him such, as he not only actually worked freelance in the stronger-armed arenas of revenue collection, but in his underworld life collected young bodies and souls to serve his personal and business needs as well) ran for fully ten minutes, stopping occasionally to listen for any sounds of pursuit. He soon heard the creek clearly, but just as he found the water a long line of slow-moving clouds covered the full moon, and so he tended his bloody face and neck as best he could in the sudden darkness. His high Victorian collar had undoubtedly saved him from further injury. Now he detached it and flung it aside, and blindly dipped his handkerchief over and over in the cool waters of the stream. The repeated cold compresses eventually stopped his bleeding, and soothed his face and neck. Then he found a secluded spot inside a ring of boulders not far from the relaxing flow of the creek. Here Grinfels passed a fairly comfortable night—the great stones had saved some heat from the day, and he wrapped his voluminous cloak securely about his skeletal frame.
He awoke just before dawn, headed upstream to a calm stretch of water, and again cleansed his wounds. Then as the pool returned to stillness, and the first rays of the sun broke over the horizon, he bent to reattach and adjust his collar in nature’s mirror. He gasped in alarm at his reflection in the water—his prize locket no longer graced his neck. It must have come loose, he reasoned, when that infernal feline was attacking him, caught in the beast’s claws, and pulled free of his high collar.
Still, he searched his camp area carefully to no avail. Grinfels knew he could take no chances—the odds against it were high, but it was not impossible his nemesis could discover the locket’s secret. And that wench still had over six months to bring a case—if she dared, if she were still alive. He must devise a way back inside the Castle, but how? He could probably find the entrance at the falls, but negotiating the tunnels successfully would be a major stroke of luck. Then he realized another possibility—he may have broken the clasp and lost the locket as he madly swept those hordes of slimy creatures from his face and neck.
The town of Clover, with a population now numbering perhaps three hundred, had in its heyday in the early to mid twentieth century been a thriving vacation and resort spot, known hundreds of miles around for its medicinal spring waters. Spring, summer, and fall brought huge waves of the tourist trade, temporarily swelling the population into the thousands—these might include conventioneers eager to offset their nightly excesses with Clover Tea, an invigorating restorative whose major advertised ingredient, Clover spring water, was augmented with a proprietary blend of herbal extracts, and if truth be known, a substantial aliquot of Erythroxylum coca infused from that plant’s leaves; high-school science field trippers, the intrepid youngsters often slaking their thirst after a hot day exploring the geology of the town’s aquifer and its seven outlets (historically there had been as many as twelve) with icy bottles of cola, cream soda, ginger ale, or root beer, all proudly bottled using local water by the century-old Clover Bottling Company; and any number of confidence men (and women), prostitutes eager to shoot fish in a barrel, and just plain country folk lured to Clover as the one place to get a drink in an otherwise dry three-county area.
So Clover in her prime had it all—health spas and luxury hotels, a convention center (now a vast open-air market), casinos, bars on every corner, a thriving red-light district, and looming above it all, the monolithic Clover Bottling Company, which totally monopolized the local production of both spring waters and spirits.
Then, as early as 1960, the aquifer began to dry up, and not twenty more years had passed before Clover Bottling shuttered its doors for good. With its demise, a whole host of allied industries likewise folded their tents. The last remaining casino was now a dilapidated venue for weekly bingo games run by two feuding local churches; the once booming four-square-block area devoted to the fleshly trade was completely razed and turned into a town park, flanked on two sides by a new civic center and a loose consortium of museums and galleries; and the gargantuan bottling plant itself, located at the very center of town, now featured an industrial museum at street level, meticulously restored in every detail by the three surviving Clovers whose oldest ancestor of record, Elias Joseph, first imagined a great future for the local waters. He purportedly cured his own crippling rheumatoid arthritis through daily consumption of a gallon collected from a slow seep on his homestead—and zealous devotion to righteous living as the town’s first preacher. Upscale condos now filled the second and third storeys.
The desk clerk at the Clover Arms initially looked askance at the gaunt and somewhat dishevelled guest, his face a grisly map of barely scabbed wounds, bruises, and swelling. But the timely appearance of ten crisp hundreds drawn from a thick money-clip in an inner pocket of the exquisitely tailored if somewhat rumpled coat to pay for seven nights’ stay, and Arthur Granby’s offhand dismissal of the clerk’s necessary ritual gesture of returning three
of the bills, together with that employee’s surreptitious pocketing of same, acted as welcome emollients in what might otherwise have proved a sticky transaction.
The clerk, displaying no curiosity as to Mr. Granby’s lack of luggage, showed him to his third-floor room at the rear of the hotel. Here he commanded a sweeping view of the city park, its spacious greenswards now almost covered with the brilliant autumn leaves of cottonwood, poplar, and maple. As well, he was happy to shop for the few necessities Granby would need for the week or so he would stay in his room while his wounds healed—basic clothing from the army-navy store, grooming supplies at the pharmacist’s, some groceries.
Within a week, he deemed his appearance to be sufficiently improved so as not to attract undue attention, and headed to the modest business district to shop. He bought hair dye at the pharmacy—his currently brown hair would henceforth be black. After window-shopping at a surprisingly upscale men’s store, he found a delightful four-ply cashmere sweater in his favorite brick red, and added four dress shirts—two white, one light gray, one pale blue—two pairs of charcoal dress slacks, a navy blazer, and some comfortable hiking shoes to his purchase.
This afternoon and evening he would began to acquaint himself with the townspeople, and they with him. The hotel dining room, judging by its prix-fixe menu and elegantly understated decor, would be an excellent venue for his official debut in Clover society.
But first he would dress carefully for dinner, and then enjoy an afternoon stroll through the park, undoubtedly striking up a conversation here and there. Added to this, a few leisurely pre-dinner drinks and casual introductions at the hotel bar would go a long way towards granting him the privacy conferred by personal acquaintanceship—he would no longer be a stranger among strangers.
Thus fortified, he would dress in casual clothes, lace up his new trail shoes, and head back through the forest to the Castle grounds.
The evening meal was indeed late that night. By the time Rory and Esther had assembled plates and bowls of leftovers—a hearty vegetable soup for the bipeds, accompanied by various heels of rye and French breads, and the generous remains of a pork rib roast for Omar and Red Top, it was nearly nine o’clock. Esther and Rory raised their glasses of red table wine in toasts first to Red Top, who had discovered the locket, and then Omar, whose riddling verse fueled their imaginations and gave them hope. The felines, in turn, lapped from their bowls of catnip beer, and undulated their tails in appreciation.
“It has been a long day, and we can all look forward to a night of sound and well-deserved sleep,” Rory observed, as our heroes moved to the next room following their meal. “Still, if we could but unriddle this locket, I for one would rest easier.” He added smaller logs to the fire, perhaps hoping a eureka moment would arrive before more fuel was needed.
Esther had deftly assembled a dessert cart. She handed out bowls of vanilla ice cream to Red Top and Omar, who licked them languorously at flanking ends of one sofa and turned from time to time to gnaw on the rib bones they had carried from the table; Rory and Esther sat between them and enjoyed the last pieces of an intensely flavored lemon cake, its already understated sweetness further enhanced by generous quantities of lemon rind and poppyseed. Black decaf coffees proved a perfect accompaniment.
Rory drew the enamelled piece from his shirt pocket, and again opened it to reveal the portrait within. “Let me take it,” Esther said on impulse, and withdrew with the locket to the darkest corner of the great room. Focusing the intense beam of a pocket flare on the portrait’s face, and donning her strongest reading glasses, she concentrated her gaze on the small diamond to the left. She thought she could detect the faintest lines beneath the girl’s right eye, and shifting her attention to the left eye, could find no analogous marks. Almost absentmindedly, she nudged the western diamond eastward with the tip of her pinky finger. In the silence of the living room’s corner, far from the gently crackling fire, she distinctly heard a small click. The left side of the oval portrait popped slightly open.
“Rory!” she cried. “Omar! Red Top!” And she bounded back to the fire to share her discovery. “Am I a genius or what?”
The excited party returned to the better-lit dining hall to examine the locket further. The felines could perhaps be excused for an overzealous practicality in scurrying back for their forgotten pork bones, but they were packed with tasty marrow the two friends had barely begun to excavate. Gathered about the dining table, they all leaned in to watch closely as Esther swung the portrait open using a small nail file. Against a thin backing of black velvet rested a woven plait of hair in the form of a figure-eight. The strands were alternately brown and blond.
“Tonight we rest,” concluded Rory, and winking conspiratorially at Esther, added, “Tomorrow we scour the library for human hairs that are not gray. Perhaps our recent guest has left us a souvenir.”
“It has been months!” Esther protested.
“Need I remind any of us, myself included,” and here he cast an appraising eye over his audience, “that we don’t exactly rate the Good Housekeeping seal of approval? Breakfast, then, at six sharp. I will be serving blueberry buckwheat pancakes.” Instantly aware of the import of two pairs of steady eyes focused in his direction, he quickly added, “and of course, bacon and sausage. Good night.”
Esther blew out the candles at her mother’s table, and after performing her usual nightly brushings and ablutions, turned on her bedside lamp and began perusing Rabbi Loew’s book on the Kabbala. She had not noticed the subtitle—“Volume One. The Casting of Spells,” and skimming the table of contents, found a chapter titled “Ordinary House Spirits, Familiars, & Golem,” and fluffing and propping her pillows just so, began reading.
The writing, however, was dense and exhibited the demanding formality of syntax peculiar to that era. Soon her eyes were closing, and after several attempts to marshal her reserves, Esther turned off her reading lamp, and settled in cozily for the night. As her eyes closed, she saw again the innocent face of the girl in the locket, saw again with crystal clarity her features illuminated in the strong beam of light. She remembered the sound of heartfelt sobbing, and then a name endlessly echoed itself in her mind. La Llorona, La Llorona, La Llorona . . . thankfully exhaustion overtook her, and sleep came at last.
Both microscopic and chromatographic study—Rory and Esther had outfitted a former pantry off the kitchen into a fairly respectable laboratory—established the virtual identity of brown hairs gleaned from a library carpet with a single brown hair carefully removed from the locket. Rory would immediately ship the specimens to a trusted colleague for definitive forensic analysis, but for the time being, the message was clear: Arthur Grinfels, strongly and logically suspecting the Castle, or even its inhabitants, to be in possession of his prize pendant, would stop at nothing to recover it, especially, as our heroes also logically concluded, the blond hairs entwined with his once graced the head of a past or present—or both—victim of his nefarious appetites.
The first day of May was an exceptionally fine one—the temperature at mid morning was a comfortable sixty-five degrees, fresh breezes gently blew seemingly from all directions, and the sun shone benevolently in a brilliant cloudless sky. Our heroes gathered in the garden after an early morning devoted to scientific inquiry followed by gastronomic debauch—the promised pancakes turned out perfectly, with just the right amount of crunchy crust circling tender interiors bursting with fruit, and the quadrupeds did full justice to a heaping platter of subtly spiced sausage links bordered by a rasher of lean bacon. Esther wheeled out her trusty tea-cart, this time equipped only with a large thermos of coffee and a pot of freshly brewed catnip tea.
Rory got right to the point. “I have not personally seen any evidence of Grinfels’ return. Has anyone noted any suspicious activity in the last months?”
Red Top spoke first. “Omar, as we know, regularly patrols the system of tunnels to the south. On several occasions in March and April, he bade me accompany him on his nightly rounds. Occasionally a scraping or scuffling sound could be heard in a distant branching passage, and always at these times we would stop, stand stock still, and listen carefully. I have put it down to the usual incursions of fox or skunk, who happen upon the entrance and then often take a while to find their way out again. We have seen scat in many locations, but no tangible evidence of human passage.”
The four friends sat quietly for a while, and the unfolding perfection of the late spring morning wrapped itself around them like a cocoon. So strange to be contemplating such evil while surrounded by such beauty. . . . Then Esther broke the companionable silence. “I had the strangest experience last night. The girl’s portrait in the locket triggered a name in my mind, which then would not stop repeating. La Llorona, La Llorona—”
Omar glanced up from his cup of tea, and then spoke:
Hace diez anos, más o menos
Desde La Llorona estuvo aquí.
No la recuerdes? Los ojos mismos--
La manzana no cae lejos del árbol.
“Aha!” chortled Rory. “You’re not fooling me this time, you golden-eyed devil. Esther, find the files for Mrs. Beatriz de la Fuente. If at all possible, invite her here today, and hang the expense.”
So saying, he paced the garden in great strides, his head bent in thought.
A Well-Earned Walk
Esther reached Beatriz de la Fuente after several calls to the former client’s friends and employers. She was understandably anxious about any possible news of her long-missing daughter, and although Esther was careful not to encourage either false hope or unwarranted despair—after all, it was not definitively established that the portrait inside the locket was of her daughter—still the emotionally labile mother had to be coaxed several times in the course of a half-hour conversation back from the figurative ledge of an impossibly tall building.
How could Esther have forgotten La Llorona? As a sanity check, she reread the dates in the file, and breathed a sigh of relief. During Ms de la Fuente’s week-long stay at the Castle, Esther had been much preoccupied in nursing her own mother back to health after a hip transplant, and had seen La Llorona only in passing. The sound, however, of the seemingly endless sobbing from the adjacent guest room often kept her awake late into the night. And dining with Rory soon familiarized her with their client’s apt sobriquet.
At the time of her first visit to the Castle, Ms de la Fuente was in a state of nervous collapse, and given the mental rigors of the journey, had been heavily sedated. Physically, she was strong and healthy, a young woman still in her early thirties. Still, Rory had decided to accompany her for the final leg through the woods, and even had recourse to blindfolding his guest when terror penetrated her narcotic fog.
This time around, Esther arranged the most luxurious transportation available, and had Omar rent a special horse-drawn coach to convey their guest through the gloomy forest—often a trial for even the most sanguine of souls—to the comparative innocuousness of their front door. Then Esther pictured the two-foot-long solid brass door knocker in the shape of a pouncing cat, and the artist’s realistic rendering of tooth and claw. She chuckled further at the vision of Omar atop the slim carriage, reins in paws, and a vigilant La Llorona scanning the paths for possible chroniclers of her final descent into madness. Perhaps suitably distracting chatter with Esther could then see her relatively unscathed past the flickering gallery of lugubrious ancestors, and once assured of safe passage through the revolving book stack, she could plausibly be ensconced in a comfortable, overstuffed library chair and soothed with hot tea and freshly baked muffins.
Her secretarial duties accomplished, Esther, after a brief afternoon siesta, decided to spend some quiet time in her garden, and then go for a walk. Their guest could not be reasonably expected before nine that evening. The danger of frost was past, and she had several varieties of tomato, and offspring from a particularly succulent line of muskmelon, to be planted in a freshly tilled area in the far southwest corner of her plot. As she tamped freshly composted earth into place around the sets, and stood back to admire her handiwork, she caught sight of Omar leisurely strolling the stream bed angling from the north and west around the Castle. It then held a course almost due south for roughly three miles to its origin—a ten-foot waterfall that seemed to drop straight out of the earth, and was actually
the opening spout of an underground river whose source had never
Omar was likely on his way to explore a group of tunnels. Ever since it became common wisdom that Grinfels would inevitably return for the locket, Omar inspected the tunnels on a rotating basis—it took roughly three weeks to complete the circuit. He usually worked after dark, his excellent night vision and silent tread lending him the advantage of possibly detecting a headlamp-wearing Grinfels, so Esther was surprised to see him now. Her planned walk being along the same route, she hoisted her backpack, donned her sun hat, and followed her friend.
All our heroes knew of the entrance to the system of tunnels leading to the Castle, a narrow fissure barely over a foot wide hidden behind the waterfall. She watched as Omar walked the four-inch-wide semicircular ledge passing beneath the curtain of water, envious of his oblivious surefootedness. She, too, would use the ledge, although her progress was much slower, and she searched for handholds throughout the trek. Rory, however, whose girth made it impossible to secure a foothold, would actually approach through the stream bed, and somehow manage to haul himself up at the entrance, where the outcropping was a few inches wider. And then it took some fancy maneuvering to fit his frame through the opening. Esther always laughingly compared him to some oversized piece of furniture that somehow had to be angled just right to fit through a recalcitrant doorway.
Not wanting to startle him—even though the chances were excellent he was already aware of her presence—Esther waited a few minutes to be sure Omar was well within the tunnels, and then shimmied her way to the entrance. Here the ledge was just wide enough for her to sit comfortably. She felt the cool mist from above and an occasional splash to her ankles. She did not know it, but she was not unobserved—less than a quarter of a mile away, hiding in dense foliage, a thin, black-haired man in gray khakis and camouflage tee watched her intently through a pair of high-powered binoculars.
Esther decided to take the tunnels back to the Castle. Perhaps she would encounter Omar along the way, and they could enjoy each other’s company on the way home. As she moved inside, the collector swung swiftly into action. He scrambled down the slope to the stream, hoisted himself effortlessly onto the ledge, and moved with impressive agility to the
Caressing the Buck knife at his belt, he slipped easily into the passage.
“Evidence indicates that cats were first tamed in Egypt. The Egyptians stored grain, which attracted rodents, which attracted cats. . . . It is certainly not the whole story. . . . Weasels and snakes and dogs are more efficient as rodent-control agents. I postulate that cats started as psychic companions, as Familiars, and have never deviated from this function.”
—William S. Burroughs, The Cat Inside
Esther was still perhaps five minutes away from the single tunnel that led to the Castle when she heard fast breathing and hurried footfalls behind her. She accelerated her pace and soon entered the one true artery. A glance back around the corner assured her she had not been spotted. Realizing the near impossibility of anyone save herself, Rory, or the felines finding this one tunnel—and then making the still necessary dozen correct choices to reach the Castle—she stopped not eight feet inside, ducked into a side passage, and listened cautiously. Over the next ten minutes, she could hear the footsteps and occasional curses recede more and more, as her pursuer ran into repeated dead ends, unknowingly retraced his steps, and in all likelihood gratefully found the entrance again by following the sound of the waterfall.
Upon her return home, she immediately called a family meeting. It was generally agreed her pursuer, Grinfels or not, likely harbored malevolent intent, and as an added precaution the metal gates on the stairway landing would be deadbolted until further notice. Rory privately thought this was overkill, the chances of anyone finding their way through the byzantine system of tunnels probably one in ten thousand.
Then a solicitous trio of roommates settled Esther in the dining room with
a tall glass of pinot noir, enveloped her gently with Corelli sonatas, and together entered the kitchen to assemble a light supper. Omar, in particular, displayed his dazzling skill at the cutting board—the bowl of chopped vegetables to be stir-fried seemed to fill of its own accord and overflow. And as the glossy feline deftly assembled and sautéed the vegetables and leftover rice (standing on an up-ended orange crate to reach the stove), his orange companion carried a whole roast chicken from the refrigerator in his strong jaws, crossed through to the dining room, and leapt effortlessly to the table to deposit it on a platter. Rory, meanwhile, swayed to the music while preparing a tin of cranberry-orange muffins for the oven.
Esther was thankful for the relaxation. Now, after bringing fresh linens and towels to the guest room, and selecting a small bouquet of early garden blooms for La Llorona’s bedside table, her official duties for the day would be over. Omar and Rory would share the tasks of escorting Ms de la Fuente to the Castle, and entertaining her in the thankfully small window before bedtime. Red Top, whose nerves were exhausted, gladly accepted Esther’s invitation to share her room for the night.
Never had the familiar comforts of her room seemed so welcoming. Yesterday’s strange conversation with Red Top still weighed heavily on her mind. Was Omar truly a golem? She had always been vaguely suspicious of the story she heard—via Rory—on the first Friday following his seemingly miraculous return from the dead—that he had family responsibilities, and a once-estranged ex-wife now saw fit to grant him Saturday visiting rights to his three sons and daughter, who were the feline equivalent of teenagers. The timeline just didn’t add up—Omar would had to have sired this batch only a few months before his disappearance, and by then he was more than fourteen years old. On one occasion only had she questioned Rory closely, but he swore he had it from Red Top who had it straight from Omar.
Then again, why would a golem need a backpack? Omar’s dusty red rucksack, a Christmas present from Esther, reliably disappeared from the kitchen coat-tree every Friday night. Recalling her drowsy perusal of Rabbi Loew’s book last night, she determined to revisit the chapter that treated Ordinary House Spirits, Familiars, & Golem. With Red Top settled comfortably at her feet, she arranged her pillows for reading, and refilled her glass from the wine bottle she had snagged from the kitchen.
The chapter, opening on page 102, looked to be relatively brief, perhaps twenty pages. The answer to the Sabbath question arrived quickly, after a few introductory paragraphs describing the construction and activation of golem.
Let not this Creature despoile the Sabbath; for Usefull & Loyall as he may be, yet he remaines an Unclean Thinge, and no pleasaunce in Our Lord’s eye. Let him not crosse unto the Sabbath, else ye must Destroye him for ever; yet may thy Servant be timely dissolv’d & fashion’d anew each following Daye.
Three brief footnotes followed this introductory material, and although Esther could not fathom their meaning, she hazarded the guess, given the context, that they were numerological sequences meant to influence the golem in specific yet distinct ways.
1. Aleph 4-12-1-4
2. Taw 4-1-12-4
3. Aleph, taw 4-3-2-1
Esther sighed, closed the book, and poured herself another half-glass. Then she opened the book several times at different places, alternately returning to pages 102 and 103. It was as she suspected—the book definitely lay flatter opened to these pages, and she found further confirmation through inspecting the spine with the book closed. Again she turned to the golem chapter’s opening pages, and this time tilted the book at various angles to the light. Diagonally across the right page she could detect the faintest outlines of what appeared to be handwriting, and running her fingers lightly over the surface, could feel an uneven pattern of rough and smooth.
In what was nominally Omar’s room at the northwest end of the hallway, Esther had set up her art studio. Aside from a simple folded wool blanket in a west-facing window seat, and a small shelf of personal reading material in one corner, Omar had graciously conceded the room to Esther, who was thrilled to have her own studio space. An oak library table, two by five feet, stood in the center, and tucked beneath it, a single ladder-back chair. Esther had fashioned moveable room dividers from some of her larger abstract paintings, joining several together over balsa wood or wire frames and mounting the constructions on weighted rollers. These she arranged to suit her needs, but generally they demarcated storage areas for paints, pastels, and charcoals; glues, tapes, brushes, scissors, and a heavy-duty guillotine-style paper cutter; a shelf of old art magazines and National Geographics; and a bin devoted to found objects. A toilet and sink occupied one corner, its door an open-weave stainless-steel lattice that let in just enough natural or artificial light to require none of its own. From a ten-drawer stainless steel flat file originally used to store topographical maps, she removed several different sheets of tracing paper, and then chose three pencils from a green Bauer tumbler.
Back in her room, she carefully and methodically went about the task of tracing the suspected handwriting. I, too, may bring something to life, she chuckled to herself. And then her humor vanished as she recognized the unmistakeable contours of her husband’s writing. Gently rousing Red Top, she showed him her evidence. Yawning widely, he seemed glad to be relieved of a secret burden.
“You’ve opened the bag, and the proverbial cat may yet run free. I’ve only just begun to figure it out myself. You know how our mutual friend takes special care not to upset us—he has told me nothing. Even though Omar at fourteen was, so to speak, an active senior, take it from me, there are no teenage children to visit. Those supposed nervous tics of Rory’s at the dinner table—the rearranging of silverware, the folding and unfolding of his napkin in various ways, the repeated small sips from his water glass—don’t be fooled, it is all deliberate. And by all means, return that book to the library before he misses it. But copy those footnotes first.”
Rory must have decided to entertain La Llorona in the living room rather than the library. They would take their light refreshment relaxing before the fire; then Ms de la Fuente would have yet another hurdle to clear before settling comfortably for the night in the eiderdown luxury of the guest room’s king bed—negotiating the wainscoting, the causeway, and the long staircase to the second floor.
Esther tossed and turned for what seemed like hours. She heard the murmur of conversation as Rory and their guest entered the great common room, the muted thuds and clankings of the fire being built, and then a period of quiet as her husband presumably went to the kitchen to prepare the tea-cart. Then she detected the faint clatter of cups and saucers, the familiar squeaking of the cart’s wheels as Rory wheeled it before the fire and joined Ms de la Fuente on the sofa. After a few more minutes had passed, the sudden sharp cry of La Llorona, and then her steady and uncontrollable sobbing, confirmed Esther’s worst fear: the young girl in the locket was indeed the long-lost daughter.
And then the soft tones of her husband, and the sing-song of Omar crooning a lullaby, and then silence. Rory must have decided to settle La Llorona for the night beside the ebbing and soothing fire. Just as surely he would have found her pillows and a light down comforter from the storage closet off the kitchen, and bade her good-night in his gentle way.
And Omar would curl at her feet.
Esther Finds a Friend
Esther rose early and worked quietly in the kitchen assembling breakfast. As she passed through the common room, she had noted that La Llorona still slept soundly. Omar rubbed against her legs, nonverbally requesting a pre-breakfast snack. Knowing Blackie’s habits well, Esther whisked a raw egg and served it to him with a gentle rubbing of the ears. Her mother always thought it was the secret to his superbly glossy coat.
Though Omar would not engage in conversation, he was an attentive and expressive listener, his eyes and ears and tail registering a complex matrix of responses to those who knew him. As Esther went about her preparations, she spoke to Omar about his upcoming anniversary. Strangely enough, in the whole year that had passed since his reappearance, Esther had never broached the subject of his seeming return from the dead in his presence—it was as if they had a tacit agreement to leave it alone.
Now as she spoke, she saw his head droop, his ears flatten, his eyes lose their sparkle, and she rushed to him in alarm, apologizing profusely, caressing him under the chin and kissing him on the head over and over. “My darling Blackie! My sweetest one—please forgive me!” He lifted his head in her hand, and she felt a tiny purr vibrate through her fingers. Then he left the room, with a seemingly apologetic backward glance, and she knew he needed to be alone.
A fierce anger suddenly rose in her, and she shook so violently that the wooden spoon in her hand clattered to the floor. “Rory is at the bottom of this,” she muttered to herself, “and I won’t stand for it. I will have the truth—and my Omar’s suffering will end.”
Over breakfast, it was initially proposed that Ms de la Fuente would camp out in the library, and have exclusive use of the bathroom off the kitchen, rather than negotiate the circuitous route, somewhat confusing to the novitiate, between the first and second floors. The others politely restrained their usually wolfish eating habits in deference to their guest’s alternately picking at her food and dabbing her eyes with the corner of her napkin. Clearly she was still shaken by the revelation of the night before, but our heroes could see she was making a sincere and valiant effort to control her emotions, and she progressively took a more active part in the general conversation.
Esther and Red Top asked about her journey, and a suddenly animated La Llorona laughed gaily, recalling her pleasant surprise at the elegance of the small carriage, its fine woods, gleaming metals, and luxurious tuck-and-roll upholstery. “And that Omar,” she exclaimed, “so handsome, so dashing in his fine scarlet livery!” But the casual talk dropped off more and more quickly into awkward silences, until Rory, clearing his throat, shifted the emphasis.
“Let us sketch out the most likely course of events. Evelina went missing just before her twelfth birthday. Though she falls clearly within the parameters of Grinfels’ predilections, until this locket surfaced there has been nothing to link her with him in preference to any number of his ilk. The locket with its interwoven hairs shows that she was special to him—he probably kept her for himself.”
Here La Llorona cried out, and Esther took her hand and softly rubbed it. “Bad as that may sound,” Rory continued, “let me offer a bit of reassurance from my long years of following these cases. It is usually far worse, far more dangerous to be added to a stable of girls at this age—many pedophiles embrace violence and degradation. Grinfels, while certainly no saint, has been reliably profiled as the exception to the rule—he idolizes his girls, puts them on a pedestal, and, if substantial anecdotal evidence can be believed, rarely has relations with them.” Ms de la Fuente had stopped crying, and now raised her chin hopefully.
“That is the good news, or as good as it gets,” Rory said. “Now comes the difficult part, mostly difficult because there is so much uncertainty. Arthur Grinfels from all accounts is a particular man. The playthings he chooses are always between the ages of ten and fourteen. There are no exceptions. So within two to three years’ time, your daughter ‘aged out’ in his eyes. He would no longer have any use for her.”
“What happens then?” La Llorona asked, barely above a whisper.
“Some are discarded, some are contracted out to pimps or madams serving varied marketing segments—all financially tied, in the end, to Grinfels. I would guess that Grinfels, wanting ‘the best’ for Evelina, would have secured her a position in the highest echelons of the trade. Here she would be relatively safe, and live in luxury. But whatever freedom she may have enjoyed as Grinfels’ consort would be at an end—these girls and boys are ruthlessly controlled and never see the light of day.”
Rory lowered his eyes. La Llorona collapsed, and Esther ran for the smelling salts.
Discussion of the pros and cons of Grinfels’ possible capture would have to wait for another time. Esther now took La Llorona under her wing, escorting her to the southeast stairs, where Rory, having preceded her, slid the cherrywood panel and guided Ms de la Fuente onto the landing. Esther, after concise and seemingly curt instructions to have the ancient skeleton key lock augmented by a locking deadbolt, took her guest by the arm and began climbing the stairs. Rory’s complaints about the necessary trip to Clover, and the time he would have to spend retrofitting the tunnel gate lock, evidently fell on deaf ears—Esther deigned merely to glance back over her shoulder and growl out, “Blah. Blah, blah, blah.”
Esther opened the door to the guest room and showed La Llorona inside. Leaving her comfortably situated in an oversized leather chair, fluffing the pillows behind her head, and then positioning the footstool to her liking, Esther took her leave, assuring her guest she would return soon with soothing chamomile tea and a plate of her signature currant scones—barely sweetened with maple syrup, and flavored with lemon rind and a hint of mace. But first she freshened the water in the vase of cut flowers, asked Ms de la Fuente if she would like music—agreeing, Esther chose Chet Baker’s My Funny Valentine—and invited her to browse the low, three-shelf bookcase.
Esther quickly assembled the scone ingredients, and soon had them rolled out, cut into rough triangles, and in the oven. As she turned to prepare the teapot, Rory barged in, muttering under his breath, abruptly tossed an apple, a protein bar, and a bottled water into his backpack, and then slammed out the back door. “Taking the scenic route, I see,” she called out, since Clover lay to the north of the Castle. And then sotto voce, “Good riddance to bad rubbish!”
She poured the tea, stirred the leaves, and then ambled to her garden to do some watering as she waited for the scones. She spotted Omar sound asleep among his pine branches. He looked peaceful, and as much as she wanted to, she refrained from petting him. As she turned to pull down the festive streamers—handmade prayer flags—she had only two days ago happily strung about the garden, she abruptly changed her mind. Let them stay, she thought. Prayer is always a good thing.
Esther loaded teapot, mugs, a basket of warm scones, and jars of raspberry and apricot jam onto a stainless-steel serving tray with raised circular rim. She was quite the sight balancing the tray in one hand and grasping one rail of the ladder with the other as she climbed the fifty-nine steps to the hallway above.
La Llorona answered her knock promptly and relieved her of the tea tray—she did seem a bit out of breath. Esther unfolded a card table and chairs from a closet and together they unloaded the tray and sat down in awkward silence. As the final bars of “I Fall in Love Too Easily” drifted into their own silence, the two women exchanged wistful smiles, and their shoulders relaxed as each felt accepted by the other.
“I appreciate your kindness, Ms—”
“You may call me Esther.”
“Beatriz. I am sorry to impose on you and your family. I feel I may be causing
Esther laughed and waved her hand dismissively. “Oh . . . Rory. Not to worry, we have history.”
“Oh? And is there a future too?” Beatriz joked.
“That remains to be seen,” Esther replied, her eyes suddenly fierce, her jaw clenched.
“Please forgive me! I don’t mean to intrude,” La Llorona added quickly.
“Not a problem. I’m an aficionado of graveyard humor myself.” And then Esther, instantly regretting her words, clapped her hand to her mouth. “Now it’s my turn to be sorry. I never meant—”
“I know,” Beatriz answered. “Tell me about your scones. I would wager they are oil-based. How do you get such a crunchy crust?”
Storm Clouds Gather
Rory angled northwest through the garden and was soon following the
creek to Clover. His anger seemed to dissipate as he moved into familiar territory—his stomping footfalls eased off, his eyes raised and slowly scanned the stream as he began to relax and enjoy his surroundings. He now regretted his lack of tact in speaking to La Llorona—perhaps he should have been vaguer, softened the contours of a reality he knew not only professionally but firsthand as well.
But what was going on with Esther? All through breakfast she never caught his eye or spoke a word to him. She deflected his good-morning kiss, his lips landing awkwardly on her shoulder. Perhaps her narrow escape, and then the stress of La Llorona, and her meticulous planning for Omar’s party tomorrow . . . Rory made a mental note to purchase a box of Omar’s favorite catnip cigars.
Esther, after perhaps another half-hour of increasingly relaxed conversation with her new friend, suddenly caught herself yawning. “It’s not the company,” she was quick to explain. “I slept terribly last night.”
“Then rest,” La Llorona replied. “And roust me out later. I shall relax with some music, write some letters, and explore your bookshelf.”
“Thank you. And Beatriz—my husband failed to mention a third possibility. Your daughter Evelina—would you say she was resourceful, could she think on her feet?”
“I would say yes. I could never figure out what she was thinking, what she would do next. She definitely had a mind of her own.”
Esther sat quietly for a while, and then rose to leave. “Escape. She may have escaped.”
As Esther closed La Llorona’s door, she spotted Red Top in the hallway and called to him, “Join me for a nap?” The orange tabby ran forward, and rubbed his head against the doorway and then her legs. Esther recognized the opening chords to Carlos Santana’s “Black Magic Woman” coming softly through the guest room door. Smiling, she playfully chased Red Top onto the bed. Soon they were both snoring peacefully.
Should Rory load his opium pipe or not? Passing the little pebbly beach and the boulder with the cupped-out base where he had discovered Red Top, recognizing again that magical area along the creek where bull and witch materialized, remembering the addictive power of living inside the minotaur’s body, he was sorely tempted. He was keeping the pipe, he explained to his three comrades, for sentimental reasons. He did not tell them of the five-gram chunk he kept hidden, so he told himself, for “emergencies.” Still, a promise was a promise, and Rory once again put the pipe away. Saint for a day, he reminded himself. Who knows what tomorrow may bring?
Forest ended, and the great meadow leading to Clover stretched at his feet. Feeling suddenly tired, he found a comfortable grassy spot at the margin, where overhanging pine boughs provided a delightful canopy of sun and shadow.
He woke from uneasy dreams. Judging from the sun’s position, he had slept one or two hours. He drank from his water bottle, and tried to make sense of the images in his mind.
A baby crying and crying, it would not stop. He picks it up and carries it into the sun, where first it turns black, and then vanishes. Esther is angrily shouting numbers at him, pointing at prayer flags streaming in her garden. He bows to an old man with a long beard, his gnarled finger shaking as it moves right to left across the page. La Llorona dances around a huge bonfire of bitter-smelling herbs, holding aloft a bloodied butcher knife. Its metallic glare at first blinds him, and then he steps inside a circle of radiant light. A singsong voice, both unknown and heartbreakingly familiar, repeats more and more softly, so he must strain to hear: “I forgive you. I forgive you. I forgive you.”
La Llorona tapped softly on Esther’s door. Esther, refreshed from her nap, was relaxing over a game of checkers with Red Top. “Come in,” she called, and Beatriz angled her head through the doorway, taking in the scene. “Don’t let me disturb you,” she answered, and Esther repeated, “Come in, come in. We’re done—this orange scalawag has just conned me out of fifty dollars for the umpteenth time. I never learn.”
“Good afternoon, Ms de la Fuente,” Red Top purred cordially. “I will leave you in my lady’s trustworthy hands and take a stroll in the garden. The exercise will do these old bones good after so much idle sitting around”—here he shot a sly glance at Esther—“and the early catnip, as well, seems to provide the best analgesia.”
“Harrumph,” groused Esther. Beatriz, not exactly sure if she should be amused or sympathetic, stuck to safer ground by changing the subject entirely.
“I see you are an admirer of La Virgen de Guadalupe. Such a collection of images! And your retablos, as well, are some of the finest I have ever seen.” She crossed to the memorial and studied it quietly for a while. “And the menorah and phylacteries on your mother’s altar, are they family heirlooms?”
“Yes, my mother’s father’s—he was Orthodox.” Beatriz fell silent, and Esther could see the perplexity on her face. “Now? I’m not particularly religious—or unreligious, for that matter. I love the art, the ritual, the primitive. And you, Beatriz?”
“I was born in Cuba and raised Catholic. I still revere many of the saints, but we know them now by different names. Many of us lead secret lives, because misunderstanding and persecution are very real. I am a santera, a priestess, of the Lucumí. You call our practice Santería.”
“We may have more in common than meets the eye,” observed Esther, not batting an eyelash. “If I am not mistaken, there is a strong element of spiritism in your religion.”
La Llorona inclined her head in agreement.
“Perhaps you can help me through a difficult situation. Have you ever heard of golem?”
Rory shook his head clear, took another long drink, and munched thoughtfully on his apple as he crossed the field to Clover. He was not a stranger to vivid and often upsetting dreams—he had a history of chronic nightmares going back to childhood. Long experience had taught him that some dreams were best forgotten, and some were worth examining. His instinct told him to leave this dream behind, that somehow it was unfolding on its own in real time.
So he took deep breaths, and let the beauty of the day fill his senses—the menagerie of clouds scudding lazily across the sky; the swoop and sway of hundreds of songbirds feeding in the tall grasses, sparrows, meadowlarks, warblers, their calls and songs charming the air; lines of raucous crows in the pines circling the meadow; the sweet dusty smell of the sea of grasses smiling beneath the sun, or rippling in the distance from a gust of wind; the abrupt hush of cicadas as he must have passed close, and then their thrumming chorus rising again in his wake.
Rory found the keyed deadbolt at the town’s combination surplus, camera, and hardware store. The current owner had bought up a whole block of businesses that went under when Clover’s aquifer-fed springs slowed to a comparative trickle in the 1960s and 1970s. There was still sufficient water to meet the small town’s needs, but long gone were the days when its great underground lake drove a booming tourist economy, when Clover Bottling, sole purveyor of mineral waters, artisanal soft drinks, and beers and whiskeys, pumped the lifeblood of the town.
At Clover’s peak, there were, Rory knew from locals, over a hundred taverns in the small town. Now three remained, and Rory stopped at his favorite, the Four Leaf Clover, for a spot of relaxation before the trek home.
Truth be told, he wasn’t in any hurry to return to his domicile in its current acrimonious state.
He had a few icy pilseners, whiling away most of the afternoon with the taciturn but smiling bartender—a single working mother in her mid thirties—and an older married couple, probably in their early seventies, who both seemed eager to bend his ear. The yammering duo fought ferociously for air time, and Rory was soon tuning them out as best he could—it became more and more obvious to him that they mostly liked the sound of their own voices. A distinctly modern malady, Rory mused, while offering a polite yet terse comment here and there. These oldsters have remained hip.
As he followed the main artery out of town—not surprisingly, Clover Street—he noticed the flyers in windows, the yard signs proclaiming “Granby for Mayor—Bring Back Clover!” Larger road signs depicted an intersection blazing with neon, and businesses crowded cheek by jowl displaying the simplest of signage—Bar, Casino, Massage, Health Club, Spa. The candidate, a darkly handsome, bearded and mustachioed man in his early forties, exuded wealth and confidence.
A cloud passed over the setting sun, and Rory felt a sudden chill, out of all proportion. Then the sun returned, low against the waves of long grass, and his tremor passed. Gratefully he entered the wide meadow and surrendered to its song.
Beatriz laughed. “I’m a student of comparative religions. Rumor to the contrary, I don’t spend much of my time sacrificing goats, concocting herbal remedies and talismans, or casting spells. So yes, I am familiar with golem mythology.”
“Truly a myth—no basis in fact?” Esther enquired.
La Llorona sighed, and spent some time in thought, staring fixedly into space. “This is the most difficult territory of all—the intersection of the living and the dead. Many believe there is no commerce between them. My own experience says otherwise.” She paused, closed her eyes, and then continued in a hushed voice. “But there is a wholly necessary ambiguity everywhere. Think of the two sides of an endlessly spinning coin, and consider, too, its weaving edge. If you can watch it steadily, and not get dizzy, or fall into a trance, or lose your bearings . . .”
Beatriz did not complete her thought. Instead, she seemed to snap to attention, and asked matter-of-factly, “What is your interest in the golem?”
Now Esther took her time in answering. She described the final months before Omar’s disappearance, her shock at his return, and then briefly summarized what she learned in Rabbi Loew’s book, and told of the suspicious tracings of Rory’s handwriting. She recounted, as well, the conversation with Red Top, when he first asserted Omar was a golem.
“I have fond memories of that gallant coachman,” La Llorona declared, “and his loving company last night after I learned of my Evelina. Tell me, may we visit him now?”
“He was asleep out back not three hours ago,” said Esther, “and may well still be there—he often prefers a truly fresh breakfast, and my garden is home to both tender and crunchy fauna, in unlimited supply.”
“Not to worry,” Beatrice quipped, slack-wristing the air in finest Jewish fashion. “Already I will swear he is no golem. A schwartze for sure, but no golem.”
“Language, Ms de la Fuente!” And then, “How can you possibly know?”
“It’s simple. He has a soul.”
Omar noticed the increasingly chilly mornings, and knew in his old bones that it was time to move on. It was several miles to the waterfall following the stream, but using the tunnels from the Castle would save nearly a mile. Omar chose the overland route, wanting his final hours on earth to be spent beneath the sky, watching the creek’s steady flow, hearing the birds sing. His destination was an unused passage behind the waterfall—even though he had explored it many times over the years, he had never found any sign of human passage or habitation. Just inside the entrance to the system of tunnels that led to the Castle, this tunnel, almost completely hidden by a pile of rocks, led first to a circular cavern, roughly twelve feet in diameter, and then if you dropped through a hole at its center, to the underground river itself, fully twenty feet across from shore to rocky shore. In the cavern’s ceiling almost directly above, a single natural skylight, a circle of sky two feet wide, shone a spotlight to the space below, which quickly faded to darkness all around. It was Omar’s intention to use this cavern as his final resting place.
But the unexpected presence of Lucas and Lena changed all that. A brusque “Who goes there?” rang out from a dark corner, and the speaker, receiving no reply, advanced into the circle of light, knife drawn. He then stared in surprise at the emaciated black cat who limped into the light, and wondered, too, at the feline’s poetic introduction:
Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.
The shaman advanced quietly toward Omar, who was now lying on his side and laboring to breathe. Laying a gentle hand on Omar’s head, he addressed the shadows behind him: “Lena, prepare the tea.”
Lucas had not always lived apart from his fellow man; it was only after five years of relocation after relocation, and the endless suffering of suspicion, shunning, and banishment, that he decided it was best this way.
Lucas’ story recalls, in broad outline, the McMartin case from the 1980s. A child, abused by a “thin, tall, dark-haired man,” confides in his teacher. The teacher, through innuendo and lies, convinces the boy that his abuser is Lucas, a fellow instructor at the school. The boy fingers Lucas, the parents are brought onboard, and then allegations of satanic practice are added to the mix—and after a hasty trial notable for its absence of forensic evidence and unquestioning acceptance of his colleague’s damning accusations, Lucas is convicted and subsequently sentenced to twenty years. He makes parole after fifteen, and despite the hardships of ostracism and exile in town after town, city after city, he completes his parole before vanishing for good.
As his parole neared its end, he began assembling what meager survival tools he could afford. Since leaving prison, he had worked sporadically at whatever he could find—farmhand, handyman, day laborer—and always, he felt, with the clock ticking. How long before his past caught up with him again, would he have a week, a month, three months? Then the inevitable firing, on one flimsy pretext or another, the contagious spread of fear and anger and moral outrage, and the figurative equivalent of tarring and feathering and running out of town.
Lucas purchased a serviceable hunting bow and six arrows and a knife suitable for dressing small game. He took leave of the town of Caroline, nestled in the foothills south of the Castle, and headed even farther south, hoping to find the river’s source, and perhaps a small underground kingdom he could call his own. He had certain advantages gleaned from his long exile—he had learned to commune with foxes, feral dogs and cats, and especially crows and ravens. He had, in fact, splinted a raven’s leg and fed it and given it shelter. Lucifer, an impressive forty years old, had fully recovered, and though he would vanish for days at a time, always returned to Lucas, always found him again no matter where he ended up next. He rode on his master’s shoulder, and a hypothetical observer could not fail to notice the guttural caws and croaks, and the answering movement of Lucas’ lips, as they crossed yet another wide meadow together. Thus a shaman was born.
The land around Clover, and the Castle, and Caroline to the south, was arid much of the year. Streams ran perpetually low, often dried up entirely, and seeps were few and widely scattered. Enterprising foxes and coyotes, skunk and possum and raccoon, and certainly those most intelligent creatures of all, the crows and ravens, had long known their way to the river’s hidden entrance deep in the fastnesses of the Great Horned Mountains.
Now Lucifer flew ahead, and perched occasionally on a high limb or rock, as Lucas through trial and error forged his way—there were no paths and he was constantly skirting impassable ravines, backtracking and circling and slowly making progress. Finally, after four hours of reconnoitering, Lucas saw Lucifer making the prearranged signal, raising and lowering his wings from his perch atop a lone cottonwood, its many dead branches clear testimony to its hardscrabble life.
He followed Lucifer through a narrow, shoulder-high crevice, and then, after advancing another hundred feet, heard the water’s dull roar. Scrambling down a forty-five-degree incline for fully a quarter-mile, his fingers raw and bleeding from endless grabbing at the slightest of handholds, he dropped finally to a narrow shore. Lucas had no way of knowing, but his were the first human feet to touch down here. The stream burst from even deeper in the earth, and began its roughly fifteen-mile run to Clover, where it finally trickled to a halt in the great meadow outside town. The river here was impressive, easily fifteen feet wide, its current strong. In the pitch dark, Lucas had gauged its width by tossing a pebble across, and assessed the flow with his hand. Knowing Clover’s history, how fifty years ago its great aquifer began to dry up, Lucas imagined how much more powerful this current must once have been.
The smooth shore, now a foot wide, soon narrowed to impassibility, and Lucas knew he must plunge in and take his chances. For perhaps a half-hour, he surrendered himself to the darkness, floating on his back, his bow and quiver and small backpack clutched to his chest, while Lucifer chose to wing it. At times the great stream grew quieter, and he could hear the beating of wings above his head. Then as the current slowed to a low whisper, Lucifer suddenly dropped to his chest and cawed insistently. Distrustful at first, Lucas did as he was told, and found himself standing waist deep in a gently moving current.
The inky darkness, too, was here and there relieved by narrow shafts of light, and soon the walls began to glow faintly. Now the water was thigh-deep, and he strode easily over to investigate. Lucifer leaned from his shoulder and deftly harvested a pale crustacean, and Luke marvelled at the pulsing glow of thousands of the crunchy snack’s companions.
The two friends continued along the stream for another hour, and then Lucas noticed a large but faint circle of light. Just able to grasp the opening’s rim with his fingertips, he hauled himself up into his new home. He noted with pleasure the natural skylight twenty feet above his head.
Then the darkness suddenly shifted, and he felt the sharp point of a blade at his neck. A woman’s voice hissed in his ear, “One false move and you’re a dead man.” Lucas stood stock still for what felt like an eternity.
Omar’s strength returned within a few days. Lucas and Lena patiently encouraged him to lap at the bitter tea. At first he was reluctant, and seemed more inclined to just give up the ghost, but after only a few hours he was visibly improving. Soon he stood and drank without being prompted, and Lucifer persuaded him to munch on a small crustacean. The glossy feline and the big black bird appeared to hit it off immediately, and a mere two days later, they were practically inseparable. The couple would watch them sleeping in the warm circle of light near the glowing coals from a hollow fire ring, the great raven often perched comically on Omar’s head, or sprawled astride his belly, wings relaxed and half opened, like a collapsed umbrella.
“It’s a good thing,” Lucas teased, “I gave our visitor a friendlier welcome than the one I received.”
“True,” Lena replied, and snuggled closer. “But I’ve gotten better, right?”
“I’m the luckiest man in the world.”
Omar’s conscience was still smarting from his encounter with Esther that morning, and after a relaxing time by himself in his pine bough lair in the garden, decided around noon to leave early for the day.
He slipped quietly into the kitchen, and loaded his rucksack with two small apples, an orange, four carrots, and two currant scones wrapped in foil. He then wended his way south along the stream. He was happily surprised about ten minutes into his walk by the appearance of Lucifer—the jet black raven raucously announced his presence, playfully dive-bombed an amused Omar several times, grew tired of the sport, and then hopped along the creek bed with his friend at his side.
He had been thinking seriously about the situation for a few months now, and today’s encounter with Esther showed him in no uncertain terms just how harmful his subterfuge could be. His new friends, as well, had discovered him more than once in the course of his tunnel duty, and he could sense their growing curiosity. He needed to convince Lucas and Lena to leave the shelter of their nest, that they would be safe in the Castle from the outside world. He could not give details, but he would assure his friends they would be no imposition, and their stay a few hours at most. He wanted to unite his families, however briefly, and drop the year-long burden of dishonesty.
And he had a secret agenda as well.
Another Friday arrives, and Lucas eagerly awaits the midnight visit of his only friend from the outside world. He not only enjoys the pleasure of Omar’s company for a whole day, but the fresh fruit and vegetables he brings, and sometimes even a bag of homemade cookies or scones—all are welcome additions to a meager diet of endless albino shellfish, roasted crickets, dandelion and watercress, berries in season, and the occasional rabbit or mourning dove he manages to shoot with his bow.
When his visitor arrived unexpectedly in early afternoon, and sat pensively below the skylight, his tail wrapped firmly about his legs, Lucas knew something serious was afoot. Then Omar spoke.
“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes--and ships--and sealing-wax--
Of cabbages and kings—”
Lucas undoubtedly gleaned some sense of the situation, but it was Lucifer, whom Omar had fully coached, who told Lucas, and then Lucas Lena, what exactly was going on.
“It is settled, then,” said Lucas decisively. And Lena squeezed his hand for strength and reassurance.
After a leisurely lunch, long naps, and a late evening featuring charades and a cutthroat game of poker—Lucifer, as usual, took everyone to the cleaners, further augmenting his already impressive collection of shiny baubles—the foursome extinguished the fire and headed along the creek to the Castle.
Rory arrived home so late from his errand at Clover, that by the time he had bathed and rested, and assembled the evening meal—it was his turn to cook—it had gone several minutes past ten. As they gathered at table—waiting as long as mutually agreeable for Omar to appear—Esther voiced her concerns about the black feline. “I was sure we would find him awake by noon, hunting for lunch in the garden. Beatriz especially wanted to visit him, and thank him for his kindnesses last night. And then I noticed his backpack gone from the kitchen—never have I seen it gone so early in the day.”
Rory jerked suddenly in his chair as if stung by a bee. “Backpack? What backpack?”
“His red one, of course,” Esther replied. “The one he always uses on Saturdays.”
“Of course, of course,” Rory glibly answered. “He undoubtedly needs some overnight supplies, and probably even brings gifts sometimes for the kids.”
“Undoubtedly,” Esther coolly rejoined, and perhaps none other than her husband could have detected the slight but unmistakeable hint of sarcasm in her voice.
The evening meal then passed in almost complete silence. Now and again Esther and Beatriz would exchange glances, and then erupt briefly in laughter. Red Top tried, with little success, to engage Rory in a discussion of the relative merits of robotic versus higher mammalian intelligence, but the master of the house seemed moody and preoccupied, even agitated. As they concluded the main course, Rory passed his hand several times across his eyes, as if clearing cobwebs. He then spoke clearly and calmly, but Esther could detect the subtext of artifice.
“Esther, please escort our guest to the living room, and do tend the fire a bit. I will clear the dishes and brew us some tea.” The women settled comfortably on one of the sofas, kicked off their shoes, and talked earnestly in hushed tones. Rory, meanwhile, cleared the table quickly and gestured Red Top to come near. “Fetch Omar. Now. Search the entire grounds, north and south. Do not fail!”
Rory poured the tea, added bowls, spoons, and pints of ice cream to the rolling cart, and joined Esther and La Llorona before the gently crackling fire. “Red Top has kindly volunteered to look for Omar. I have no doubt they will be joining us shortly.”
Beatriz got right to the point. “Don’t think for a minute we’re not wise to your numerological mumbo-jumbo. But hear me clearly—Omar is no golem. You are wasting your time, and causing your wife real distress.”
Rory startled at her words, then allowed a long-practiced smile to mask his feelings. “I would remind you, Ms de la Fuente, that you are a guest in my house, and as such I deserve at least the appearance of respect.”
Beatriz chose not to reply. Instead, she moved next to Esther on the sofa and draped her arm gently across her new friend’s shoulders. The two women looked calmly into the fire.
Red Top then sauntered into the great common room and reported directly to Rory. “I have searched high and low, I have called loudly and clearly—you know the power of my lungs—and Omar is nowhere to be found.”
Rory was beside himself with rage. “How dare you return with such news? Go out again, and this time keep your wits about you,” he snarled. Red Top, however, was not impressed. He sat with perfect posture, curled his tail around his body, and barely suppressed a yawn as he answered, “I do not doubt my abilities. My work here is done.”
Rory stormed from the room. “Insolent feline! I’ll be in the library—I do not wish to be disturbed.”
“I thought the evening might end up this way,” Beatriz chuckled. “I spent some time alone in the library late this morning while you napped. I believe you will excuse my temporary rearrangement of a particular shelf.” Rising from the sofa and stretching her arms and shoulders wide, she nodded to Esther and Red Top. “It must be nearly midnight. What say we stroll around the grounds before turning in? Sometimes the cool night air induces the soundest sleep.”
They left through the kitchen, cut west just before the garden, and then circled around to the Castle’s front door. Esther removed the key from the invisibly hinged right paw of the great metal knocker and let them in. La Llorona’s spirits were irrepressible, and soon the contagion of her laughter and mimicry spread to Esther and Red Top. Suddenly they were kids again, plotting some secret and hilarious prank. The area behind the revolving bookshelf was just around the next bend in the corridor, so they had to ratchet their noise level down quickly. Beatriz made the universal sign for zipping the lips, and she mimed it with such a flourish that it nearly backfired. Then they stood hushed just outside the library, three pairs of eyes scanning the room—Red Top perched on Esther’s shoulder—through the mesh latticework La Llorona had left exposed by moving three fat Norman Mailer novels to a corner table.
Rabbi Loew’s book—Esther recognized its distinctive cobalt blue binding—lay open on the center table, among several others. Rory paced the room wildly, tearing at his hair, chanting different sequences of numbers in Hebrew. Alternately he would return to the table, hunch over another book, and rifle through its pages as if Time itself were running out. At last he collapsed sitting at the table, and tearfully choked out a final series of numbers.
As the grandfather clock in the library chimed midnight, Esther pushed the partition decisively, and strode defiantly into the room, Red Top still clinging to her shoulder, with La Llorona close behind. “I am sorry to override your wishes,” she blurted out, angry and confused and genuinely alarmed, “but I can see you have worked yourself into a frenzy. Whatever can be the cause of this great grief?”
Rory answered brokenly, between great heaving sobs. “Omar . . . I had no choice . . . now he is lost forever.”
“I see,” Esther said drily, turning at the sound of approaching footsteps. A dazzling smile lit her face. “And who, then, might this be?”
Through the partition stepped a young woman, a forty-something man shouldering a huge raven, and . . . Omar. Rory could not believe his eyes.
Neither could Beatriz de la Fuente. “Evelina!”, she cried, and rushed to embrace her wide-eyed daughter.
“For children are innocent and love justice; while most of us are wicked and naturally prefer mercy.”
—G.K. Chesterton, 1922, “On Household Gods and Goblins”
Our four heroes and their four guests, after introductions, reunions, apologies, and the unruffling of various human feathers, did manage to spend a restful night.
The first Sabbath in May dawned in spectacular fashion. After late-night thunderstorms, the air was fresh, the sky clear. The gentlest of breezes rippled the fruit trees, and the motley crew assembled in small groups here and there in the garden. Esther had loaded her cart with all manner of comestibles, wheeled it just beyond the back door for ease of restocking, and invited one and all to partake.
Esther, Beatriz, and Evelina sat around a small table they had relocated between two peach trees. Some of the fruits were now the size of golf balls, and the trees were still flowering. The path at their feet was strewn with blossoms from last night’s storms.
Omar had invited Red Top and Lucifer to share the comfort of his pine bough lair, which Esther had thoughtfully freshened first thing in the morning, carrying armsful of freshly downed branches from the forest, and shaking them free of water. The black feline had slept indoors last night, so drenching were the rains, sharing Esther’s bed with her and Rory. It would be a judgment call as to which spouse bestowed more head kisses, more ear rubs, more strokes down the spine to a slightly embarrassed but complaisant Omar. Omar indulgently let Red Top rattle on with Lucifer; he was content to be done with hiding, done with dishonesty, and relaxed quietly in the morning sun, his arms straight out front sphinx-wise, his eyes mere slits of contentment.
Lucas and Rory now seemed to be chatting like old school chums, their shoulders at ease, their silences and laughter often uncannily synchronized for two people who had met only hours before. From time to time they gazed at Omar, and then eagerly resumed their conversation.
Rory had needed no introduction to Lucas; although the man had aged greatly over twenty years, he was still recognizable, and learning his name, it all came rushing back. “I followed your trial closely, and was bitterly disappointed at the outcome. I’ve been in the trenches for years, and I know a predator when I see one.”
Lucas sat quietly, listening carefully and respectfully.
“I believe we have business interests in common,” Rory continued. “The key prosecution witness, a Ralph D’Annunzio, recanted his testimony only weeks after the trial. Do you know why?”
“Naïve as it may sound, I always thought his conscience caught up with him,” Lucas said softly.
“Hardly,” Rory replied. “His original testimony was contracted by a third party—as it happens, the tall, thin, dark man who actually molested the boy.”
“So what changed his mind?”
“Nonpayment of invoice in the amount of fifty thousand dollars.”
“And the cheating employer?”
“A certain Arthur Grinfels.” Rory paused, knowing his next words could either sink their still fragile friendship or join him with Lucas in a great crusade. “I believe you have a mutual acquaintance.”
Lucas, of course, had only one human acquaintance. His face registered disbelief, then alarm, then anger, and finally resolve. “So he’s the one,” he whistled incredulously.
Arthur Grinfels could not believe his bad luck—surely one of these tunnels must lead somewhere. How many times in the last months had he attempted a methodical exploration of these very same passages, how many careful maps had he drawn? Soon he lost all track of Esther—for a while he thought he could detect the sound of swift footfalls somewhere ahead of him—and heard only silence. His vision of holding her hostage at knifepoint to bargain for his precious locket vanished in thin air. After several more twistings and turnings, he breathed easier—the familiar roar of the waterfall grew louder and louder, and soon he bolted from the claustrophobic maze and breathed great lungsful of air.
He detected something unusual—sporadic whiffs of wood smoke—and moved stealthily further south to investigate. Almost immediately he saw faint puffs of smoke not ten feet away. Creeping forward silently on all fours, he peered cautiously past the rim of an opening at the crest of a small rise. The late afternoon light was still strong enough for him to clearly recognize, after careful study and factoring in the passage of time, the features of Lucas Lapierre.
Heading homeward to Clover, the master predator did the accounts for the day, and quickly realized he could safely leave Esther off the ledger sheet. His coffers were now overflowing.
The Clover twins, Joseph and Jeremiah, had shared the office of mayor for the last thirty-two years. In deference to the office’s term limits, the incumbent would step aside for the next eight years while his identical twin took the reins. Some locals questioned whether the change of leadership ever took place, but the debate never grew contentious, because no one really cared. These were Clovers, by God, the great-great-grandsons of Elias Joseph, and so long as there was a Mayor Clover, all was right with the world.
Arthur Granby had his own plans for the office. Although he was new to Clover, he had acted quickly to establish himself as a solid citizen, and his obvious but not ostentatious wealth (true, he drove a Rolls Royce, but it needed body work and new paint) marked him as a man who wore his success lightly, and had no need to impress. Within weeks of moving to town, he had left his hotel for an upscale loft in the renovated Clover Bottling plant. He attended Grace Lutheran Church regularly, and had single-handedly funded the restoration of their century-old choir loft, a generous bequest not unnoticed in the local press. His smooth social graces and seemingly bottomless wallet had also garnered many friendships with local merchants.
Grinfels aka Granby had the vague but compelling notion that once mayor, he could somehow force the hand of Esther and Rory and retrieve his pendant. That and his simple love of power were enough incentive for him to mount a quixotic challenge to Mayor Joseph (or Jeremiah) Clover.
Mayoral D-Day—Tuesday, May 6—was fast approaching, and Granby’s twenty-point polling deficit to Jeremiah Clover was holding steady. He needed a miracle, and despite his regular church-going habits, believed less in the power of prayer than in the logic of necessary and appropriate action.
He had assembled an earnest network of highly paid campaigners: youthful idealists—perhaps—who shared his vision of a revitalized Clover. The last Friday before election day, the dapper candidate hosted a dinner banquet to honor his tireless workers. The recognitions and rewards were many and generous, but the most coveted honor—Hero of the Year—went to a relative newcomer to the campaign. As Billy Martin strode proudly to the podium to accept his award, the general grumbling gave way to thunderous cheers as what seemed at first like streams of confetti dropping from the thirty-foot ceiling materialized into American currency in denominations of twenty to one hundred dollars.
The young Mr. Martin opened his envelope to find a neat stack of twenty one-hundred-dollar bills. On the back of the envelope was a short note: “Please join me for a late lunch tomorrow at my loft, say three o’clock. In only two months’ time you have sold me on your top-drawer organizing skills. I believe your political future is bright indeed. Best regards, Arthur Granby.” As a postscript he added his street address and apartment number.
The driving route to the waterfall from Clover was by no means direct. While the path of the proverbial crow was barely four miles, and the traveller on foot would cover more than five, Arthur Grinfels had logged fully twelve miles before he stopped at the end of the last navigable stretch of fire road above the falls. He carefully scanned the area in all directions with his high-powered binoculars, patiently waited for the last light to drain from the sky, and then popped the roomy trunk of his beat-up but dependable Rolls. He hoisted a zippered garment bag to his shoulders and moved as quickly as he could down the slope to the privacy of the curtain of water. Navigating that narrow ledge with over a hundred pounds slung across his back was no easy matter, but he accomplished it without a single slip. Again he passed through the slim crevice leading to the tunnels, and this time chose a destination he could easily find his way out of. He threw the bag roughly to the ground, emptied its contents, and retrieved the envelope from a back pocket. This time he exited calmly, with a smile on his lips and a song in his heart. Once again in his life, he had succeeded in the fine art of mixing business with pleasure.
Billy Martin’s parents stayed up late worrying about their missing son. Thinking the teen had once again decided to sleep over at a friend’s without calling them, they finally resolved to see the sheriff first thing Sunday morning, and resigned themselves to a fitful night’s sleep.
By Sunday afternoon, after the sheriff had consulted with Billy’s parents, friends, and an obviously concerned Arthur Granby, who spoke glowingly of Billy and his dedication to his campaign, a genuine sense of alarm was growing. At this juncture citizen Granby took the sheriff aside and voiced his concerns about Lucas Lapierre. The convicted pedophile’s name struck pay dirt in the long memory of Sheriff Higgins, who immediately organized a search team of deputies, police dogs, and volunteers to sweep the area south of the falls.
Lucas’ cavern was abandoned and empty, the only sign of human habitation the charred fire ring. Then within minutes the telltale baying of a police dog filled the air. As the grim-faced search party followed the slim German shepherd back through the crevice behind the waterfall, the last rays of the sun disappeared behind the hills.
A Gentle Time with Friends
After a leisurely breakfast that stretched nearly until noon, Rory called his family and guests to order for what he promised would be a short business meeting. He took the center of an informal circle that gathered on the widest garden path.
“For now, I have two major items to report—both concern our common adversary, the seemingly unstoppable Arthur Grinfels. On my recent visit to Clover, I noticed campaign signs featuring an astonishing likeness of the villain. I would wager a goodly sum that he has taken domicile in Clover and is now running for mayor under the name of Arthur Granby. In the next week, I will make discreet inquiries at the local hotels—there are now only four—and perhaps a clerk can remember registering a bleeding, scarred, dishevelled man whose hair at the time was brown.
“Second, I have received the forensic analysis I requested on the strand of hair from the locket. I will admit it was a long shot. Not unsurprisingly, there is no link to Grinfels—for the simple reason that no shred of DNA has ever been collected from him. The analysis can only type the specimen as to sex, age, probable race, and nutritional status. For our case to go forward, we would need to obtain a sample from him. And soon—the statute of limitations expires in less than a month.”
“Short of capturing him, that hardly seems possible,” observed Esther.
“True, but with capture . . .” Rory trailed off. “Well, let’s just say there is more than one way to skin a cat.”
After twin yowls of protest followed by glowering stares, Rory hastily offered a more politically correct metaphor.
“And Lena? Could she help?” asked Lucas.
Rory shrugged apologetically. “Perhaps as a witness in a further proceeding--if we could get a sample, and if a judge would reopen the case. In the event, I would still hesitate to involve her. Grinfels is batting a thousand at avoiding conviction, and the tentacles of his organization are many and lethal.”
“And my case? Could I help bring him down?” Lucas persisted.
“Sadly, lost in the sands of time. Possibly a civil action . . .” Then he seemed at a loss to go on. Beatriz thoughtfully changed the focus.
“Rory, I want to personally thank you and Esther for the compassion and hospitality you are showing us, and I apologize for any lack of civility I may have shown you.”
“Ms. de la Fuente—Beatriz—I am grateful now for your honesty. I have done a great and good friend a grave disservice.” Omar handed Red Top a note he had personally written, and the orange tabby, looking directly at Rory, read out the words in soft, clear, musical tones: “I forgive you. I forgive you. I forgive you.”
Rory bowed his head. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
The afternoon passed unremarkably. Evelina, whose proportions closely matched Esther’s, was thrilled at Esther’s bequest of a bagful of shirts, sweaters, jeans, and slacks she had set aside for the Salvation Army—her one pair of jeans and single tee shirt were by now woefully threadbare. Lucas, too, benefited from certain clothing items that Rory was “saving for a while” in hopes of losing weight. “Those are forty pounds ago,” Esther observed matter-of-factly. “Give it up.”
Omar, Red Top, and Lucifer dozed in the garden, an amorphous pile of black and orange.
Lucas, Evelina, and Beatriz took charge of preparing the evening meal. Lucas and Lena, who had long since exhausted the culinary possibilities of albino shrimp, crickets, rabbit, and dove, of watercress, dandelion, onion grass, and sweet clover, felt like two kids set loose in a candy store, and Beatriz was glad of any opportunity to repay her hosts.
Their efforts were not unappreciated, as every plate was emptied, refilled, and emptied again. And it was not only the quadrupeds who licked their dishes clean—Rory, after an obligatory apology, lifted his plate and tongued the surface dry. “Never,” he declared, “have I experienced such an exquisite arrabbiata. Is that your doing, Ms. de la Fuente?”
Beatriz raised her hands in surrender. “I confess,” she laughed, “but I had an accomplice. Without the young marjoram and fresh chiles from Esther’s garden, this sauce would have been merely passable.”
“Tut! Such modesty—yet a trait I have always admired, being so bereft of it myself.” The well-fed party joined Rory as he laughed heartily at his own witticism. “Now, I propose that we rest our stomachs for a while before attempting the next enticing summit. If my nose is not mistaken, there is something caramelish in the offing.”
“You are on the right track,” Beatriz affirmed. “My grandmother’s flan awaits our delectation. Thinking that our furry friends might find it especially appealing, I have taken the precaution of making a double recipe.”
“A prudent and commonsense decision,” Rory said gravely.
The party of eight ranged themselves comfortably about the library, some at tables, some lounging in chairs. Omar and Red Top lay flat out on the big central table, with books as pillows. Lucifer perched just under the skylight. Omar, by popular request, was reciting a medley of poetry selections—from memory, as always—against the muted accompaniment of Miles Davis’ “Sketches of Spain.”
As he began the Poe chestnut opening with “Once upon a midnight dreary,” a raucous chorus of guttural caws and croaks descended from the rafters. Omar paused, and Lucas was quick to translate for his friend and mentor. “Lucifer would prefer you not continue. He believes the poet casts the corvine species in a misleading and somewhat unwholesome light.” Omar slit his eyes in agreement and turned instead to Wallace Stevens.
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
As Omar reached the final stanza, our eight passengers felt the weight of the day, and of the days to come.
It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.
Instinctively, they gathered in a circle, joining hands and paws and claws, and bowed their heads in silence.
Perhaps five minutes passed, perhaps ten, perhaps twenty, but they all rose from meditation simultaneously, as if of one mind. Esther then asked Beatriz to join her in the kitchen. “I will prepare tea, and you can plate the flan.
We should be back in time for the news at ten.”
Mayor Clover filled the screen in full close-up. He was clearly rattled, and blinked and twitched beneath the onslaught of a dozen flash bulbs. “My fellow citizens,” he began, “the search for local teen Billy Martin, last seen by his parents early Saturday afternoon, has come to a tragic end. Sheriff?”
Sheriff Higgins moved to the microphone as the mayor stepped back. “Acting on a tip from Arthur Granby, local benefactor and mayoral candidate, a search party made up largely of volunteers fanned out along the ridge above Clover Creek falls late this afternoon. Within minutes, a police dog led them to Billy’s body in a dead-end tunnel behind the waterfall. Coroner Jones?”
“Cause of death has been linked to blunt-force trauma to the back of the head. Preliminary forensic examination of the body showed clear evidence of sexual activity, probably forced.”
The three men then turned behind them, and gestured to a fourth figure mostly hidden in shadow. The thin, dark-haired, well-dressed man seemed to move reluctantly to the microphone. “It hardly seems my place . . .”, he began, and then as the mayor, sheriff, and coroner nodded vigorously in his direction, continued, his eyes alternately looking to the camera, and then away, as he removed and replaced a monogrammed handkerchief from his pocket. “I am Arthur Granby—some of you may know me. I am truly sorry. I should have come forward sooner. Several times in the last month, while birdwatching, I have seen this man near the falls. Even after all these years, I recognized him clearly—how many nights running did we see his face on our television screens? I am sorry—I am a God-fearing man and mercy naturally enters my heart. What harm is he now, I thought, living on grubs and insects in this lonely place? And then Billy was gone for so long . . .” Choking back tears, he moved quickly from the microphone.
Sheriff Higgins stepped up again. “Thank you, Mr. Granby. Never fear, you have done your civic duty—and more. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Granby, as we know, is a man of some means and considerable generosity. Through his largesse, I can assure you that our search will be swift, efficient, and successful. We are now able to contract enough law enforcement personnel to cover the terrain as far south as Caroline, and to mount an exhaustive search of the tunnels as well. We will find Lucas Lapierre. You have my word on it.”
“It is a shame,” Rory remarked in an offhand fashion, “that the Emmy nominations are closed for the year.” And then turning to his compatriots, who stood or slumped about in various attitudes of defiance, despair, or outright shock, he added grimly, “We have much work to do, many options to discuss. The sheriff cannot reasonably assemble his troops before mid-morning. I suggest we begin with a large infusion of coffee and the inspiration of a roaring fire. And more flan.”
A determined and caffeinated party of eight assembled before a blazing fire in the great common room. The late spring nights were still cool, and the old house, of course, as drafty as ever. Rory paced back and forth before the fire.
“Let’s begin by sketching out what we know. First and foremost, by noon at the latest tomorrow the barbarians will be at the gates. Sheriff Higgins and I go back a long way, and he will not instantly demand that I turn over Lucas—that’s how much he trusts me. Grinfels, of course, who I am certain will be in the vanguard of the search party, will be madder than a hornet.
“Here I must play my cards just right—the last thing I want to happen is to set Grinfels, who may well be mayor in two days, against Higgins. If Higgins is fired, or worse, the uncertainties will multiply like fruit flies. First of all, I will by no sign let on that I recognize Granby, and in the same spirit, downplay as best as possible any chumminess the sheriff shows me. I will freely admit that Lucas is here, but voice concerns about his safety if taken back to Clover—it is a long journey, and there are many spots along the way where a vigilante mob could shelter and then strike. I will allow Sheriff Higgins to leave as many men as he deems necessary to guard all entrances to the Castle against Lucas’ possible escape. Further, I will gladly entrust a lock of Lucas’ hair to the sheriff for delivery to the coroner. How could Granby fault my cooperation, what objection could he raise without attracting suspicion to himself?
“Remember, this is a man who has remained free only through an ironclad policy—never leave a stone unturned, or a loose end untied. He is undoubtedly aware that Evelina still has almost a month to finger him, and while he has done his absolute best, cannot be one hundred percent certain that his DNA is not languishing in some data base, ready to strike. He may well believe the now disgruntled D’Annunzio at some point in their long relationship took the precaution of harvesting a few strands from his hairbrush.
“Here’s our real trump card—he believes we have the locket and his hair. He learns that Lucas will be exonerated soon. He knows that’s his DNA at the crime scene.
“This, then, is our job. We have the locket. He’s the moth, we’re the flame. How do we lure him back before he becomes Mayor without showing our hand? His desperation will work in our favor, but he may well gamble on the waiting game.
“Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines!”
By three in the morning, our bleary-eyed crew had gotten exactly nowhere. “There’s nothing for it,” Rory wearily admitted, “I must put heroism and ego aside, and call in a favor.”
“All this time you had a favor you could call in?” Esther asked testily.
“Not a sure thing, but yes, probably,” Rory confessed.
“Out with it!” chorused seven voices.
“The clock is ticking too fast. I would not be surprised if our candidate rode the coattails of his recent favorable publicity all the way into office. Once mayor, mark my words, he will stop at nothing.”
“What could he do?” enquired Beatriz.
“For starters, a mysterious fire may ravage the coroner’s office and its attached morgue. All records will be destroyed, the body of Billy Martin will be conveniently cremated, and the coroner himself, who lives in the building, may or may not escape with his life.
“Next, Grinfels will almost certainly remove Higgins. Then we would be powerless against the dedicated mercenaries he could hire with his deep pockets.”
“He would do all that?”
“Oh my, yes, Beatriz. Whatever it takes. Now, we must act immediately. I need to contact Sam Higgins, and I don’t doubt Grinfels is shadowing him, so Lucifer must be our point man.”
A series of indignant squawks issued from a dark corner of the room. Lucas hastened to translate. “My comrade is concerned again with the Poe connection—he will not do any midnight quothing.”
“My esteemed friend,” Rory added smoothly, “it will be fully four a.m. when you reach your destination, your appearance will be brief, strictly a cameo, and you needn’t utter a word—the message will be banded to your leg.” Lucifer answered with a few guttural croaks.
“He’s good to go,” announced Lucas.
“Thank you, Lucifer. Omar, please scribe for me. Everyone else, to bed and much needed rest. Beatriz and Evelina, lay low tomorrow. Lucas, I have reconsidered. Will you join me at the gate to welcome our guests?”
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
By 10 a.m. Monday, the search teams had gathered in Clover. For ease of movement, Arthur Granby had leased a fleet of ten helicopters to fly the fifty volunteer lawmen, from six states, to an area just south of the falls. The searchers, each paid a flat fee of $5,000 for a day’s (or less) work, were quickly organized into teams, their leaders elected, and deployed.
The plan at the tunnels was straightforward—Sheriff Higgins, Granby, and a team of two dozen volunteers would methodically eliminate every tunnel that either dead-ended or circled back to the same corridor. These openings would one by one be banded with police tape. Tricky were those passages that circled back to themselves, often in a circuitous fashion; here it was necessary to stripe the walls with day-glo paint.
Just before one o’clock, the search party exited the final bend in the corridor, crossed the circular anteroom, and gathered before the locked metal gate guarding the Castle entrance. Waiting on the other side, sitting in folding chairs, were Rory and Lucas. They stood to greet their visitors.
The scene unfolded as Rory had predicted, and Lucifer’s note had smoothed the way even further. The sheriff bagged and labelled Lucas’ lock of hair, then recruited and assigned a dozen officers to guard the Castle entrances. The smile on Grinfels’ face had grown tighter and thinner, and Rory could sense the villain’s supreme effort to contain his emotions. Then at a prearranged signal—Rory taking out his handkerchief and wiping his brow—Sheriff Higgins drew his weapon, levelled it at Grinfels, and advised him he was under arrest for the murder of Billy Martin. A quick glance to his rear confirmed for Grinfels the presence of a flanking phalanx of likewise drawn handguns. “I will be mayor tomorrow,” he said coolly, “and here is one final campaign promise I swear to keep—you will live just long enough to regret your actions.”
“Mayor perhaps, but mayor-in-exile,” Higgins responded with a sangfroid of his own, as he cuffed Grinfels and then secured the free rings to the Castle’s sturdy iron gate. Then as two substantial deputies restrained a squirming Grinfels, the sheriff sheared a lock of the predator’s hair with his sharp pocket knife. “Just dotting my i’s and crossing my t’s. I am sorry to inform you, Mr. Granby, that the Clover jail is presently under renovation, in large part thanks to your generous donation to the police wives’ auxiliary. I hereby deputize Rory and Esther to act in my stead. Good day, sir.”
Tipping his hat, he and his team of volunteers turned to go. Rory and Lucas could hear the static and hiss, the staccato back and forth, of walkie-talkies as the sheriff and a few of his deputies called the Caroline team leaders to abort mission.
“Wait!” called Esther, slipping from the shadows and through the gate as Rory keyed and shot the deadbolt open. “I know a few shortcuts.” Turning a hundred-watt smile on Grinfels, she further observed, “I could do it blindfolded.”
The polls closed at six, and a suddenly uncontested Jeremiah Clover swept into office. Sheriff Higgins held a brief news conference, congratulating the new mayor, and bringing the public up to speed on the Billy Martin case. An anonymous tip had alerted him to the dual life of Arthur Grinfels aka Granby, and forensic evidence conclusively cleared Lucas Lapierre and implicated Granby. The lifelong predator, he noted, had been transported to a federal facility in compliance with the mandates of prior jurisdiction.
Esther and Rory, after exerting considerable persuasive effort, did manage to extract one concession from an otherwise uncooperative Arthur Grinfels—he committed to writing his suborning the perjury of Ralph D’Annunzio. Rory, through various contacts, made sure the information was widely disseminated in the media.
The time had come for Beatriz, Lucas, and Evelina to move on. Rory, after conferring with Lucas and Lucifer, had granted Lucifer’s request to join the Castle household. The felines, of course, rubber-stamped the application immediately. Esther, quick to see the benefits of a trusted emissary to her new friends, and secretly harboring a great admiration for the cantankerous and outspoken bird, was on board as well.
Ah, the farewell dinner! The kitchen and dining hall resounded with the laughter and endless bantering of eight chefs, alternately rushing about madly or grouped in twos or threes for private conversation. Finally all gathered at table, and Omar delivered a blessing of sorts.
We would assume that what it was we meant
would have been listed in some book set down
beyond the sky’s far reaches, if at all
there was a purpose here. But now I think
the purpose lives in us and that we fall
into an error if we do not keep
our own true notebook of the way we came,
how the sleet stung, or how a wandering bird
cried at the window . . .
Lucifer, a devotee of chilled gin, had perhaps imbibed too much in too short a time. He now flew from shoulder to shoulder, stuck his beak into seven ears, and squawked gratingly.
Beatriz had successfully replicated her exquisite arrabbiata, this time served over linguine. The five bipeds placed bets on how long it would take Lucifer to successfully ingest what was undoubtedly the longest worm he had ever encountered. His increasing inebriation only fueled the sport. Red Top and Omar looked on disapprovingly.
Lucas and Lena had harvested ingredients from the garden, and assembled a simple yet colorful salad. Esther grilled a whole trout, and served it surrounded by a reef of black caviar adorned with sprigs of fresh catnip. Omar had donned his backpack and headed to the woods. He returned with juniper berries and a bristling mouthful of dragonflies, while Red Top had gathered a potpourri of the juiciest and crunchiest butterflies, worms, beetles, and grubs from the garden for Lucifer. The squirming and fluttering mass, gaily festooned with the purple berries, was sensibly served in a covered glass casserole. Rory manned the bar. Lucifer, after perhaps two dozen sorties, had picked enough blackberries to fill a quart bowl—he could carry a dozen in his loosely clasped claws.
Two weeks later
“Congratulations again, my dear, on just the right amount of sugar for our guest’s tea,” Rory said admiringly, “but it is perhaps regretful that he was so immune to any offers of penance.”
“I do like to be prepared for contingencies,” Esther answered modestly, tamping the ground firmly over the mortal remains of the predator. She shrugged wearily. “We both know that legitimate remedies are few, and many prefer this option—and often sooner. The man was unusually stubborn.”
“It is an interesting phenomenon, and may well argue that humans are sensualists to the bitter end. In this case, a man nearing the final throes of dehydration, and having exhausted all bodily sources, will knowingly drink lethal poison to assuage, however temporarily, his thirst.”
“It is curious,” agreed Esther.
Fittingly, perhaps, they had buried him at the summit of a sloping hill just above her carefully tended row of castor bean vines. “And now we need new ground cover. Shall we have marigolds?”
“An excellent choice,” Rory answered, grinning to himself. They stepped into the kitchen and washed up at the sink, then joined hands and climbed the great south stairway. Rory, releasing her hand to encircle her waist, entered Esther’s room. Together they lit the memorial candles, and fell in voluptuous abandon onto the great canopied bed.
Red Top and Omar enjoyed several rounds of catnip, and curled back to back before the dying embers of the fire. Lucifer used them like a pillow.
Tomorrow, perhaps, would bring a paying client—the household could ill afford a steady diet of pro bono work like the Grinfels case.
Meanwhile, once upon a time, the light of the full moon shimmered gently in every room, and our five heroes slept the dreamless sleep of the just.