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 Long Way Home
Who is not mesmerized by a river’s flow? By day, sparkling beneath the sun and dappled by cloud shapes; on a clear night, ink dark and somehow deeper beneath the moon and stars. But what of underground rivers, whose movement cannot be seen, but only felt if you entered their flow, and trusted to a destination unknown? No fanciful clouds remind you of darting schools of fish or cotton candy or ships with billowing sails, happy childhood things. No cottonwoods line the shore, winking beneath the sun and smelling like water, if water had a smell. No flowers or tall grasses throw color and scent with the sun’s building heat. There is only you, and the darkness, and a future you may or may not welcome. But one thing is certain: You will arrive somewhere, and you will be asked to make your way in a place that is utterly foreign to you, or if familiar, with the familiarity of a dream you cannot quite remember.
We have often extolled the harmonious domestic relations attendant in the everyday life of our four protagonists—husband and wife Rory and Esther, and their feline companions Red Top and Omar—and the more fastidious reader would scarcely miss the mark in suspecting the authenticity of so much sweetness and light.
Indeed, in several more whimsical tales, we have witnessed the delight of this or that character in the embarrassment or discomfiture of another Castle denizen. It would not be an exaggeration to state forthrightly that each and every one of our heroes—up to and including the recently added raven, Lucifer—had an acutely developed sense of schadenfreude--that wonderful (well, at least wonderfully useful) German term signifying the experience of pleasure at the misfortunes of others. The author must stipulate, however, that this particular schadenfreude, this seemingly endemic Castle contagion,
was not, and could never be, the product of diseased or truly malevolent minds; no, it
was simply a matter of a perhaps overly expansive—even unruly--joie de vivre, of
the irrepressible spontaneity of four (now five) distinctly different, but uniformly
But it was a deeper motive than schadenfreude, and a series of circumstances that strained domestic civility nearly to the breaking point, that saw the creation and uncertain flowering of the Red Top Detective Agency. And so we begin our journey.
It was not long on the heels of l’affaire Grinfels—the loyal (or at least vaguely addicted) reader will recall that ultimately edifying tale where we first meet our intrepid quartet—and a justifiably proud Rory could perhaps rightfully claim a somewhat extended hiatus from the workaday world. After all, he had pursued the archvillain unceasingly for fully twenty years! But the Grinfels case, for all its satisfactory conclusion, for all its free publicity, had been a pro bono venture, and the Castle economy could not be long sustained through the sole contribution of Esther’s seasonal sales of fruits, vegetables, and herbs from her huge garden, successful as they always were.
The natives—with the notable exception of Rory— were growing restless. Unpaid bills accumulated, and spare funds for such frivolities as new glass for the inevitable broken windows following the predictably regular winter wind storms, or paint for the faded and increasingly dingy interior walls, could not be found. While Rory seemed to languish contentedly in his typically minimalist lifestyle (if one counted opium alongside bread and water in the most spartan of life-support systems), his roommates were finding every day more and more difficult: Esther lamented the impossibility of replenishing her art supplies; Red Top suddenly realized that his reliable enjoyment of Neufchâtel cheese as midmorning snack had entered the realm of the nostalgic; and Omar especially grieved the absence of fresh catnip—Esther had had no choice but to sell her entire harvest this year to fend off the more relentless of their creditors.
As always, a new client would arrive either through the woods from the north just as darkness fell, or via the system of underground tunnels that stretched from Clover Creek Falls to a dim, gated corridor in the bowels of the Castle itself. The usual fastidious secrecy was enforced as to the visitor’s awareness of his actual geophysical destination, and Omar served as reliable guide and somewhat less reliable interpreter—the black feline only spoke in riddle or verse.
For better or for worse, it was Rory’s marquee status—especially after the Grinfels coup—that attracted most clients, and they asked for him by name. When he was either literally unavailable—not even on the premises—or else greeted them wild-eyed and unkempt, his clothes reeking of a sickly-sweet, almond-like fragrance, reciting Baudelaire or Henry Miller or William Burroughs or a mishmash of all three nonstop for half an hour until the perplexed and somewhat fearful client begged Omar’s complicity in a hasty getaway—Esther or Red Top, or both, would apologize profusely, offer their own services at a drastically reduced per diem, and thus in this way reel in perhaps one in twenty business prospects at fees that barely covered their expenses.
Things had come, as they say, to a pretty pass.
In the far southeast corner of Esther’s garden, which enterprise comprised fully five acres, a small stone cottage—initially built by Rory to house live-in gardeners during those seasons when Esther’s mysterious illness, now in remission for seven years, rendered her barely able to lift her head, much less attend to the strenuous upkeep of such an ambitious horticultural undertaking—rests inconspicuously in the tentacled shade of a hundred-year-old Gravenstein apple tree.
Except for the rare houseguest whose requirements for solitude exceeded those already amply provisioned by accommodation within the Castle proper—either in the spaciously quiet second-floor guest room, or in the library, which featured not only numerous couches suitable for sleeping, but its own small yet adequate kitchen and bathroom as well behind a swivelling bookshelf appropriately dedicated to the culinary and sartorial arts—the little stone cottage, its single room usually curtained to roughly denote living, dining, storage, and sleeping quarters, patiently weathered the years in a state of lonely desuetude. A family of red-winged blackbirds or mockingbirds might call the chimney shaft home for a season, grateful for protection from the elements. Field mice had been known to nest in the square room’s corners, but Rory had eventually sealed all access from the outside, and temporarily blocked the hearth as well.
Esther moved her ladder here and there, gathering the last of the season’s fruit on an unusually balmy day at the beginning of April. This accomplished, she turned to scouring the ground beneath the great tree for apples that were damaged but still usable for drying or canning. “Let me help you with those,” Red Top offered, and his silent approach and sudden words caused Esther to startle slightly.
“Thank you,” said Esther, and she watched appreciatively as the orange tabby darted hither and yon, snagging serviceable fruit in his strong jaws, and carrying them to his mistress’s half-filled metal pail.
“Perhaps you can help me with a project as well,” Red Top purred somewhat slyly, and flicked his tail in the direction of the cottage’s front door.
Leaning there, waiting to be hung by chains from the porch railing, was a simple but pleasingly done wooden sign, its legend etched in a clearly readable font, the burnt-in letters highlighted in orange:
the red top detective agency
Painted beneath, in appropriately smaller black letters, the proprietor had added: all species welcome.
You could have knocked Esther over with a feather, and after enlisting her assistance in hanging the sign—opposable thumbs and grasping fingers do have their purposes—Red Top invited Esther inside, offered her plain but much appreciated refreshment—a delightful iced black tea with sprigs of fresh spearmint (or catnip), served with poppyseed cakes—and began his story.
A rare, and always welcome, visit from Beatriz de la Fuente at this uncertain juncture in the Castle’s economic welfare would provide Esther a pleasurable diversion from everyday concerns. The two women had forged a strong friendship during those long weeks when Arthur Grinfels was stalking Rory, and the fate of Beatriz’s daughter, Evelina, a captive consort of the arch-predator, was shrouded in uncertainty and fear.
Esther received news of the impending visit through Lucifer, who had been away from the Castle visiting his first human family—Beatriz’s son-in-law Lucas, and his wife Evelina—whose high-domed greenhouse, retrofitted to house fauna as well, occupied fully half of the seven acres that stretched from the last of Beatriz’s farm outbuildings to the dense white pine and red cedar forest to the south.
The note banded to the raven’s leg conveyed brief yet warm greetings, a simple question: Could Esther accommodate a week’s visit sometime in the next month?, and a somewhat unsettling disclosure—Beatriz had gleaned from the unfolding narrative of successive Tarot readings that Arthur Grinfels was once again a danger. A naturally enthused—and vaguely alarmed—Esther banded a strongly affirmative reply to Lucifer’s leg, and sent him on his
Esther, naturally, was beside herself with financial worries, and Red Top’s curious new venture, the reliable delight of his conversation, and at this very moment, the wonderfully tender cake and soothing coolness of iced tea on this unseasonably hot spring day—all conspired to induce in her a welcome sense of relaxation, a magical illusion of floating blissfully outside the lately grim confines of space and time.
“You may well wonder,” began Red Top, “just what has inspired me to open my own business. First and foremost, I feel a real and urgent need to contribute more to our household commonweal than my usual wit and legendary good looks.”
Esther chuckled appreciatively, then asked in a vaguely peevish yet droll tone, “What is this deal with ‘all species’?”
The orange tabby continued, unperturbed. “Do not take this wrongly, but human bipeds as a general rule cannot, or more likely, choose not, to see—as the common expression has it—beyond the tips of their own noses. They spend whole lifetimes building theoretical sand castles to understand the world, and literally cannot see what is right in front of them. We lesser creatures, on the other hand, rely on a brain that is constantly informed and synergized by our physical senses. If we have recourse to words, it is only as a last resort—we do not, in the final analysis, trust them to accurately describe any kind of lived reality.”
Red Top paused, and neither human nor feline felt any overwhelming need to break the companionable silence. As they sipped and lapped their tea on the porch, their gazes took in the view of Esther’s garden—the orange tabby’s eyes wide and unblinking, Esther’s slightly hooded and unfocused. The sun was approaching his zenith, and the first flowerings of fruit trees, of tomato and squash, of marigold, daisy, and narcissus, seemed a vibrating riot of color with visiting squadrons of bees, beetles, and butterflies.
Then Red Top spoke again, this time a bit more forcefully. “One of your most treasured spiritual and philosophical works opens with a very strong claim: ‘In the Beginning was the Word.’ With all due respect, this is where we part company.”
“For someone who disparages the spoken language so vehemently, you certainly know how to fill the air with words,” Esther pointed out, looking her great and dear friend straight in the eye.
“Guilty,” confessed Red Top, with the added exclamatory (or perhaps dilatory) punctuation of the twitching of his tail’s bushy tip. “I will plead extenuating circumstances, however—I have spent nearly my whole life to date in the almost exclusive company of only two humans—you and Rory—and while you both have made impressive headway in interspecies communication, both my love for you and my own possibly genetic predisposition to an unusual facility in all languages have led me down the primrose path, so to speak—”
“Of overvaluing the verbal approach?” Esther completed his thought.
“Yes, precisely,” Red Top concurred. “But my saving grace is that while I have gained facility in Human, and of course, Raven, I have not sacrificed any fluency in my native tongue.”
“Which explains your easy rapport with Omar, I should guess,” said Esther.
Red Top roared with laughter. “Easy? Omar? You must be kidding! His riddling and poetry can drive me up the wall.”
“But his intuitive truth, his ability to see where others cannot—”
“Yes, I freely admit it,” the orange tabby confessed, although with a seemingly begrudging air. “How shall I put it? Omar, unlike the rest of us, is barely earthbound. He walks effortlessly between worlds. Do you know what he answered when I asked him about his insistence on speaking only in riddle and verse?”
“Surely a rhetorical question, my dear friend—how could I possibly know?”
“Of course, my apologies—he said it was too painful to speak what others would assume was either true or false.”
“Ever the riddler,” said Esther, and her already great love for Omar beat even more loudly in her heart. “I begin to understand.”
Red Top looked affectionately at his mistress. “And that, I would humbly theorize, is the birth of wisdom—to realize that we are always beginning.”
Esther nodded, then sat up in her chair, as if bringing herself to some kind of attention. “So your prospective clientele—shall you limit yourself to fellow felines?”
“Not in the least,” demurred a suddenly beaming Red Top. “I said all species, and I mean all species.”
“But how will you talk with them, with dogs and possums and snakes and birds?”
“Oddly enough, most nonhuman mammalian languages have much in common. As for the others—for practical reasons, I will begin with the larger birds, the waterfowl and raptors—though the latter pose a degree of personal danger—”
“How do you mean?” said Esther.
Here Red Top left his chair, and did several long, slow strides and pirouettes as if he were on a fashion runway. “You will note that I am not as limber or fast-moving as in the days of yore. And I have lost a few wanted pounds. I must acknowledge that I could possibly be carried off to an avian dinner-table like some common rabbit. ”
“I wear the blinders of love,” said Esther. “Somehow I believe you will never die.”
Red Top brushed affectionately against his mistress’s leg, and then resumed his seat and his story. “If I can establish a reputation of trust, I may eventually be able to include the passerines, the songbirds, as well. Mice and similar rodents will pose analogous problems.”
“How will you communicate with the nonmammals?” enquired Esther.
“Would you believe it? Every species on—or under or over—the face of the earth has professional interpreters, allowing unimpeded communication with anyone, anywhere.”
“For what possible reason?” exclaimed Esther.
“You think humans are especially litigious? That other species are not capable of murder and mayhem?” chortled an indulgent Red Top. “Mark my words, I will be so busy your head will spin. I am glad that Omar and Lucifer will be joining me.”
“You have recruited Omar?” Esther asked, and her voice fell to a horrified whisper. “Tell me it isn’t true.”
“True as true can be,” Red Top replied.
“Rory will skin you alive, break every bone in your body, have you drawn and quartered, and then think of how to punish you.”
“C’est la vie,” answered an imperturbable Red Top, leisurely grooming his always magnificent tail. “When he wants to exit his opium-fueled fantasies and join the rest of us in the real world, and pull his weight once again, I will be more than happy to talk with him.”
Esther bowed her head. “You will understand, I hope, why I cannot join you as well?”
“Yes, I understand the ties that bind. I understand and respect loyalty. But do not lose yourself and others in the bargain.”
Red Top’s bluntness might well have offended a lesser human. But Esther rushed suddenly to him and embraced him with all her heart. “Thank you, my great friend. I shall do my utmost to save us all.” Eyes brimming with tears, she turned back to the Castle and the long road ahead.
Esther faced a daunting challenge—ensuring a civilized and gracious visit for her friend, given the Castle’s drastically reduced circumstances—the monotonous and unimaginative, often barely palatable meals they fashioned and endured from an always shrinking larder, the aforementioned dingy and faded walls, the broken windows—only a lottery win or some equally absurd deus ex machina could see her past the real possibility of her ongoing toxic ennui becoming an outright humiliation.
She took bold and decisive action. As much as it pained her personally, she sold what many considered her finest self-portrait, a brooding study in blacks and greys, with boldly placed splashes of intense color, a huge canvas fully 7 feet tall and 5 feet wide. A well-heeled collector had been importuning her for twenty years to sell the piece, and Esther had contacted him as soon as Beatriz’s visit was finalized; but the prospective buyer, perhaps buoyed by the lack of competition (Esther’s art could perhaps be fairly categorized as a succès d’estime) harangued and dithered, and it was fully ten days before they could agree on a price.
The day of the sale Esther already had painters and glaziers at work, and sent Red Top, Omar, and a typically grumbling Rory to Clover to order badly needed provisions for the pantry. She had recruited Red Top to keep an eye on her often impractical husband, and to compensate the orange tabby for his loss of business that day, she paid him a generous per diem. She restored the phone service as well.
What could possibly be going on with Grinfels? Esther well knew, experienced gardener that she was, that the archvillain was still at this moment providing welcome fertilizer to her massive flowerbeds. His fate, however, was not known beyond the ken of the Castle regulars, although Sheriff Higgins, even while issuing the official line of Grinfels’ remand to federal custody, must have had his suspicions. But he was a realist, an honest man, and a longtime friend of Rory, and played this hand close to the chest.
This visit with Beatriz would be indeed interesting, and, Esther logically surmised, could well provide the currently self-indulgent Rory with sufficient motive to lay the opium pipe aside, and join the world once again. And of course, the delightful culinary adventures that lay in store for Rory with the added impetus of a well-stocked larder would only further augment the heady incentive of revisiting the Grinfels saga—though Esther could not in her wildest imaginings find any credence for Beatriz’ Tarot revelations.
Rory and the felines had placed the grocery order fully a week before Beatriz’s expected arrival, but the sheer volume of the goods (the herbs and spices alone filled nearly a whole saddlebag), and the need to hire an estimated eight mules and two drivers, took longer than expected, and now our three heroes returned to Clover to escort the caravan back to the Castle the very day before Beatriz was due to arrive. Even with Rory’s capacious rucksack stuffed to the gills, and the small but glad assistance Red Top and Omar provided with their own backpacks, fully a dozen mules, loaded until they nearly staggered beneath the weight, and their four wranglers wended their way from Clover, flanked the Castle to the southwest along the creek, and assembled on the garden patio for unloading. It was near sundown when the unburdened mule train began weaving their way back north.
Early the next morning, a thoroughly delighted Esther and a less and less grudgingly enthused Rory unpacked and distributed the bounty to cupboard and pantry. Even though the always fastidious Rory had checked expiration or packing dates at the grocer’s, still he uncapped and assessed the appearance and freshness of every jar of herb or spice. Esther for reasons of economy had had to sell more and keep much less this year, and many were the sad, empty jars he set aside for next year’s harvest, reluctantly replacing them with store-bought equivalents—in name only, he well knew.
His eyes welled with fond tears as he shelved many favorites they had long gone without—the vaguely licoricy tarragon, the household staple catnip (above and beyond Red Top’s and Omar’s newly acquired personal stores), a quart jar of poppy seed he had decanted from a 50-pound sack destined for cold storage, a mace whose pungency gleefully assaulted his nostrils, and a host of other herbs and seeds—coriander, cumin, basil, oregano, marjoram, thyme, sage, rosemary, lemon balm, bergamot, chamomile, dill, fennel seed, lavender, lovage, marigold, parsley, rose petals, savory, tansy, lemon verbena, star anise, caraway, celery seed, juniper berries, sesame seed; and then the spices—cinnamon, allspice, anise, ginger, nutmeg, cayenne, cloves, cardamom, paprika, tricolor peppercorns, turmeric, and saffron. (Rory paused, and rapturously recalled his favorite saffron bread—an old French recipe he had surreptitiously stolen from chef Anatole—the dark pumpernickel featured a thick and chewy crust, and an unexpectedly delicate interior discreetly augmented with currants, dried tart cherries, toasted walnuts, and flecks of orange rind like a summer’s night full of blazing stars.)
Esther, meanwhile, dusted and scrubbed disused pantry shelves, patiently arranged tinned and boxed goods, and filled many an empty storage jar with such staples as pinto beans, black beans, green lentils, chickpeas, black-eyed peas, navy beans, kidney beans, red lentils, quinoa, rice, millet; and various grains and flours—oat, wheat, rye, buckwheat, corn.
Auguries from both Groundhog Day and the usually reliable Farmers’ Almanac showed clear sailing from spring into summer, and already Esther had gladly noted the first watercress along the creek, and early peppermint, spearmint, nasturtium, and wild mustard on the verges of her cultivated land. The perennial bay laurel could be found along many paths in the woods.
As well, Esther and Rory had found a suitably cool and dry cavern in a tunnel near the Castle, and recruited it as a root cellar—here Esther stored some staples from last year’s harvest, coincidentally of relatively low market value and invaluable in helping them through the winter months—russet and red potatoes, onions, garlic, sweet potatoes, turnips, beets, parsnips. The cold storage was suitable as well for winter squash, and amidst a haphazard pile of acorn, butternut, and spaghetti squashes, perhaps a half dozen kabocha could be found, their knobby forest green skins flecked with sea green concealing the dense, brilliant orange fruit that Rory especially prized for pie-making. Here too, Esther kept pint jars of her rare horehound honey—perhaps the apotheosis of bittersweet—and horseradish and ginger roots buried in vats of salt and sand.
The Fort Knox of provisions suitably sorted and stored, Rory opted for an early afternoon nap, and Esther set about the joyful occupation of baking her favorite carrot cake—a wonderfully dense affair with the unusual addition of fresh orange. Later, in the heart of the afternoon, the somewhat reconciled couple brewed Darjeeling tea and shared a plate of day-old scones and small honeycakes—both ginger infused for want of any other flavoring, and liberally endowed with poppy seeds—on the garden terrace. Rory’s eyes grew large as he surveyed the cooling cake on the kitchen table, and it took him every ounce of self-restraint to avoid tearing into it with his bare hands, frosted or not. They daydreamed out loud about this or that personal favorite, suddenly made possible again with the arrival of chocolate and cinnamon, of walnuts, currants, and lemon.
Over the next half-hour, Rory noted an unusual amount of traffic along the forest path flanking the Castle to the west, curving gradually southwest to where it joined the foot of Esther’s garden close by the gardener’s cottage. Five skunks ambled past, two couples and one solo male, probably a teenager. Rory counted no less than a dozen geese, all in one noisy, squabbling gaggle, and a great horned owl; and saw rabbits, opossums, and squirrels. A seemingly determined king snake slithered along the path, apparently oblivious to the usual prey and predators around him. Rory was surprised to see domesticated types as well—cats and dogs, parrots, and truly astonishing, a young, rearing, and high-stepping colt being urged along, presumably by his mother or grown sister. Animal sightings, especially along the creek and in the garden, were hardly a rare thing, but never had Rory noted such variety and volume. His wife having a well deserved reputation for astuteness not only in agronomy, but nearly every aspect of natural history, Rory thought to enquire further. “What is this traffic jam today? Never have I seen so many creatures scurrying to and fro.”
Esther started slightly, as if caught with her hand in the cookie jar. Then she thought better of it, and a look combining both craftiness and a joyful recklessness quickly crossed her features before she composed a serious and quizzical visage for Rory’s benefit. “I have absolutely no idea,” she answered. “But would you mind checking the tree once again for apples? It has been nearly two weeks since I last gathered.”
Rory rose to the bait. “Certainly. And perhaps I can get to the bottom of this curious rush-hour traffic.”
“I have no doubt you will,” said Esther, “Not a doubt in the world.” She then turned her attention once more to her tea and cake, and daydreamed of lemon-glazed bundt cake and chocolate soufflé, and the arrival soon of her longtime friend.
The dark-haired young man, tall and of wiry build, sorted his mail quickly in the foyer of the two-story apartment and condo complex, filling fully six square blocks, that had until forty-odd years ago been the Clover Bottling Company, purveyor of spirits and artisanal waters for the town and three surrounding counties since the early 1900s.
Even though his mind told him that his father was in all probability dead, a small voice in his heart kept him camped out in his father’s former apartment, waiting for a knock on the door, searching the mail every day for that familiar handwriting. Adding today’s mail to his bag of groceries, he swung the little metal door closed once again.
The groceries put away, he passed through the sliding doors to his second-floor balcony, and sat and sipped a bottle of beer after a quick lunch. Across the wide expanse of greensward and shade trees comprising Clover’s flagship municipal park, he noted with curiosity the large group of mules tethered in the grocery store’s rear parking lot, sharing space with the usual mix of compacts and SUVs. As the final saddlebags were filled by the store clerks and cinched by one of the four pack drivers, Andrew Grinfels drew up sharply and whistled under his breath. There could be no mistake: the portly, middle-aged man with vaguely supercilious air and voluminous black cloak, in the company of an orange and a black cat, could be none other than his father’s erstwhile pursuer and persecutor—Rory MacBean.
The young man quickly added light provisions for a few days—changes of linen and a warm sweater, and several protein bars—to his travel backpack, which already contained such basics as a water purifier, some sturdy rope, and a Swiss Army knife, and strode briskly across the park. The dozen loaded mules, one of whom labored under the not inconsequential added burden of the man named Rory, passed single file out of town, heading for the great meadow and the woods that stretched south to the Castle. The two felines had raced ahead, their own backpacks loaded only with catnip.
Rory was fast approaching a state of apoplexy. The signage in front of the gardener’s cottage had more than adequately explained the unusual stream of animals along the forest path, and he stormed the threshold of the fledgling business just as the aforementioned gaggle of geese were leaving. Perhaps their unresolved bickering predisposed them, but certainly the added complication of a large biped blocking their exit did nothing to add any species of sanguine emotion. Four of the more aggressive drakes set about Rory’s ankles with an admirable ferocity. Kicking them aside as best he could, he then confronted a maddeningly smirking Red Top.
“You may as well take the food straight from my mouth. What is the meaning of this outrage?”
“Such eventuality, though I would in no wise countenance or even contemplate it, would improve your waistline,” Red Top answered nonchalantly.
Rory lunged for the orange feline, but his reflexes were no match for those of the fifteen-year-old Red Top, who easily scooted out of reach, and then onto the porch. The still-fuming Rory followed, and sat glaring across from him.
“Calme-toi, mon ami,” Red Top purred. “Do you trust me or not? Think of our long friendship, of all we have been through together. You know I would do nothing to jeopardize that.”
“But you have lured Omar away from me! How can I possibly work without him?”
“That is a strictly temporary arrangement. Quite frankly, Omar has become bored of late, and jumped at the opportunity to assist me. If, however, you were to mend certain ways”—here Red Top demonstratively swept together a neat pile of poppy seeds which had strewn the table from his and Esther’s brunch yesterday, and further highlighted it with the rhythmic twitching of the tip of his tail—“and get back in the game, Omar will rejoin you. That is our arrangement.”
“You must appreciate how the Grinfels affair exhausted me, and—”
“It exhausted us all,” interrupted an impervious Red Top. “But the time has come to move on. Everyone is tired of living hand to mouth, poor as church mice. The bounty from Esther’s sacrifice will not last forever.”
Rory seemed to be stubbornly acknowledging the reality of the situation: he did not respond immediately in self-justification. Instead he fidgeted restlessly, arranging and rearranging the little pile of poppy seeds, sighing melodramatically from time to time, letting his gaze wander. He noted the line of prospective clients halted respectfully on the forest path flanking the garden. “Can we agree, at least, that you will not include Homo sapiens among your clientele?”
“That will not be a problem. Their overrated powers of observation, their often faulty memories, their monstrous egos—all make them inherently difficult to work with.” Here Red Top hesitated, then spoke in softer, almost conspiratorial tones. “Rory, are you familiar with the so-called Pickwickian syndrome?”
Rory came to rapt attention, a not uncharacteristic smile of self-congratulation spreading across his features. “I would assume it has something to do with a connoisseur’s appreciation of all things gastronomic?”
“Astronomic would be more to the point,” continued a playful Red Top, encircling barely a quarter of his master’s waistline with his bushy tail. “It is a medical term encompassing the unfortunate, even potentially dangerous, intersection of gluttony, sloth, and an already overly generous physique. One’s bucket list need not include all seven of the deadly sins.”
“But I—” stammered Rory, clearly set back on his heels.
He had no time to finish his defense. An agitated Omar was suddenly at their side, and the words fairly tumbled from his lips:
Could I would strike my own eyes
With blindness, end my thought’s
The dead have risen, and walk among us,
And La Llorona weeps once more.
The black feline then staggered slightly, and fell on his side, breathing heavily. Red Top quickly chewed catnip, and then thoroughly groomed his distressed friend’s face, concentrating on the nose and lips. Soon Omar’s breathing became more regular, and a gentle wheezing indicated he had fallen into a restorative sleep.
“Whatever can he mean, ‘the dead have risen’?” Rory wondered out loud. “One thing is certain—Beatriz is in some sort of trouble.”
“She is due to arrive sometime before dark,” Red Top said, “and Lucifer is travelling with her. Surely he would let us know if anything untoward has occurred. Let us confer with Esther. You go ahead—I will set out food and bedding for Omar, and advise my waiting clients that I must regrettably shutter early for the day.”
Esther’s daydreams had devolved into a fitful and disturbing sleep. Rory woke her gently, and broke the news about Beatriz as soothingly as possible. Even so, she screamed aloud and slumped in her chair. As Red Top arrived and jumped immediately to her lap, Rory said softly, “Yes, my friend, give her what comfort she can take in.” He then passed through the screen door into the kitchen, his posture suddenly straighter and his brow furrowed. “I will bring her a sweater and blanket.”
The twenty-eight-year-old Andrew Grinfels, almost a spitting image of his father in that unworthy’s earlier days, had followed the fate of the arch-predator—in Andrew’s eyes, the selfless proprietor of a worldwide network of foster homes—beginning with the first wire service reports issued from Clover by Sheriff Higgins. The young son was naturally shocked and outraged at the allegations of sex trafficking, and resolved to make every effort to clear his father’s name. He duly followed the trail of custody from Clover, and was met with shrugged shoulders at every turn.
After crisscrossing the country no less than three times, he was ultimately sent back to Clover and the continued emptyhandedness of Sheriff Higgins, who, Andrew eventually suspected, was hiding something. But what, and how could he find out? Then the chance sighting of Rory, his father’s nemesis for twenty years, always concocting wild stories and casting truly nasty aspersions, gave him the slim lead he so desperately needed.
As the mule caravan crossed the wide meadow outside Clover, heading for the shady paths of the forest that stretched south to the Castle, and beyond, a cautious Andrew Grinfels kept his distance, occasionally picking up his leisurely pace slightly to bring his quarry back inside the range of his small but powerful binoculars. Fortunately for him, the caboose of this particular train was its largest car as well—a mule a head taller than his fellows, loaded down with ballooning saddlebags, and topped by the noticeably abundant Rory. As he approached the forest edge, he caught the strong scent of pine resin in the hot afternoon air, and then stopped just inside the first welcoming canopy of shade to mop the sweat from his neck and brow. Unfamiliar with the terrain, he had no way of knowing there was but a single path to the Castle grounds. He ran for a few minutes to bring the caravan back into view, now believing he must keep them in sight at all times lest they diverge suddenly at some fork in the trail.
It is a trek of some five miles from Clover to the Castle, and the heavily laden mules and the four drovers who walked alongside them covered the distance in just under four hours. Andrew noted a few rest stops along the way, when an imperiously shouting and gesticulating Rory made known his immediate need for this or that refreshment, the discovery and enjoyment of which, depending on how deep it was buried in an eventually located saddlebag, could easily consume a quarter hour or more.
As the mules reached the Castle grounds, and flanked southeast to finally assemble in a loose circle on the garden patio just outside the kitchen and pantry area, a discreet Andrew Grinfels sought the deepest shade and densest foliage. The air was unusually still, and the young man easily heard the desultory shufflings and low whinnyings from the mules as they were relieved of their burdens. As well, he was privy to the ongoing conversation between the man Rory and a woman of slender build who was likely his wife. One exchange in particular caught his attention.
“You have no idea how much this provisioning eases my mind. Beatriz is a great and dear friend, and I want things to be just right for her.”
“It is a long haul even from Caroline, and Ms de la Fuente lives, if I remember correctly, almost another ten miles south from there. Perhaps we should send Omar to greet her,” Rory continued. “He could guide her through the tunnels and save, as you well know, two extra miles of walking. When is she due tomorrow?”
“Late afternoon, probably close to sundown. If she parks on the fire-road just above the falls, it’s still easily a half-mile scramble through the brush down to the creek. She will appreciate the coolness of the tunnels after such a hot day’s travel.”
“It’s settled, then. I will bring Omar up to speed.”
“Thank you, Rory.” They paused in conversation, and the younger Grinfels watched as they silently surveyed the huge mounds of groceries that needed sorting and storing. They quickly loaded two boxes with perishables and carried them to the refrigerator. Certain spoken words resonated with the last letters he had received from his father. Omar. The falls. Beatriz de la Fuente. The tunnels.
The couple came back out, and scanned the mounds once more. The woman stretched like a cat and yawned deeply, and her husband’s sympathetic yawn was not long in following. “Tomorrow morning, then, bright and early,” she said softly but still clearly.
Joining hands, the couple entered the house, and the screen door’s gentle closing was the last human-related sound Andrew Grinfels was to hear that night. Now only the occasional call from mourning dove or early owl, and the rustling foliage and light crunch of his footfalls broke the near total silence as he flanked the garden and headed even further south. The rising half-moon’s steady glow illuminated his grim and cunning smile.
The rattle of Esther’s tea-cart was clear indication that the good woman had revived from her shock, and gone about her business. But even now, as Rory and Red Top enjoyed a very late afternoon tea—the sun was the merest blip of yellow on the horizon, and the shadows were coalescing into a truer darkness—Esther paced to and fro on the garden terrace, tossing out rambling thoughts to whoever would listen.
“For the love of God, where is Lucifer? Surely he was not captured as well.
“How can we cavalierly take tea and lounge about while our great friend is in such danger?
“I must go,” she cried out suddenly. “I must find her now.” She grabbed a small paring knife and a strong flashlight from the kitchen, and ran back past an astonished Rory and Red Top. “Surely Omar will help me,” she added vehemently, “while you sluggards take your leisure.”
Rory, between great mouthfuls of the long-awaited carrot cake, sought to restrain her. “Esther, do sit down and be reasonable—it is better to wait until dawn. The darkness is not our ally here. Even though it may provide us with cover, we must acknowledge once and for all the great advantage of an enemy lying in wait, easily attuned to the slightest snap of a twig underfoot, the rustling of bushes as we pass.
“As you well know from your expertise in local fauna, there is no mammal anywhere near our size in the vicinity—no mountain lions, no bears, no wolves, nothing larger than the occasional county-fair-sized possum. The dumbest human would also have to be deaf and blind not to be instantly aware of our presence. We would be sitting ducks. Esther, this is perhaps the finest carrot cake I have ever tasted—you have truly outdone yourself.”
Esther, strictly entrez-nous, could be considered the undisputed Queen of the Non Sequitur, and Rory’s last comment did not annoy her in the least—indeed, it seemed to soften her stance somewhat—the well-deserved culinary praise elicited slightly pursed lips and a raising of the chin, sure signs of a successfully flattered vanity. Then she sat down heavily and exhaled a great sigh of resignation. “Perhaps you are right,” she conceded.
Red Top silently concurred as well, wrapping his soft bushy tail around his mistress’s ankles. Then he spoke, his superior night vision in full evidence. “Here comes Omar.”
Try as they might, Esther and Rory could discern only a slight movement in the darkness at the foot of the garden, and would not swear they were not imagining it. But in mere seconds, Omar was among them, and Esther rushed to caress him and bring him a saucer of chamomile catnip tea.
Beatriz had made better time than she expected on the drive north. She parked above the falls, met a waiting Lucifer, and they then respectively scrambled and flew to the ledge beneath the waterfall. Omar still had not arrived. After another half-hour passed, Lucifer decided to fly towards the Castle in hopes of intercepting him.
No sooner had the great raven flown out of sight than the shadows to Beatriz’s left shifted slightly, and a slim young man, open knife in hand, moved from inside the tunnel entrance. Before she turned, he blinded her using a dark bandanna, and bound her wrists together with a length of rawhide. Beatriz was not the screaming sort, and instead did what she could by way of defense, wildly kicking to force her adversary to lose footing on the narrow ledge and tumble to the creek below. But his superior strength and the coercive power of the sharp blade he drew delicately but meaningfully across her lips soon achieved her surrender, and she was then gagged as well. Andrew Grinfels guided his captive at close knifepoint, indicating by grabbing her left or right elbow which direction to take as they reentered the tunnel beneath the waterfall.
He knew enough from his father’s correspondence that the passage to the right led theoretically to the Castle, whereas the left passage, sloping steeply downward, would seem to dead-end abruptly after about two hundred yards at a gigantic mound of rubble. If one climbed to the top, there was just enough clearance to squeeze beneath the cavern roof. This Andrew and Beatriz accomplished, and then scrambled down the opposite side to within five feet of the floor below. Then they jumped.
They found themselves in a large circular space. Beneath a natural skylight the charred rocks defining a fire-ring attested to the presence of earlier tenants. Also beneath the skylight, close by the fire-ring, another circular opening led to the underground stream; along its perimeter rested a metal bucket with rope attached. In the near total silence of the cave, the sound of the flowing water rose and dispersed like a steady and gentle wind. Indeed, a slight updraft could be felt as one stood above the slow-moving water, and this no doubt helped fuel the fires that were built.
Night was fast approaching, and Grinfels knew he would need to build a fire—for warmth naturally, but also to generate enough light to keep an eye on his captive. Before venturing out again, he decided to walk the roughly sixty-foot perimeter. As luck would have it, the former inhabitant had left a good-sized pile of kindling and wood along one arc of the wall furthest from the heap of rocks and boulders at the cave’s entrance, perhaps to offer the least attraction to rodent incursions from the outside world.
Following the curve of the wall, Grinfels first encountered three natural depressions in the rock face at roughly shoulder height. Even in the gathering darkness, he could see evidence of leftover foodstuffs—acorns, a shrivelled bunch of dandelion greens, and a neat stack of dried albino crustaceans, their beady red eyes faintly glowing in the dying light. Continuing along, he came upon a construction of planks formed by lashing together small branches with dried grasses, separated into shelving with the support of flat rocks. The three, two-foot-long planks, about six inches in depth, created, with the cave floor as the first shelf, a four-tier storage unit, suitable for books or clothing, perhaps a folded blanket.
Just adjacent to the skylight, a length of rope hung from the ceiling, its length punctuated at equal intervals by four knots. This must have provided a second avenue of entrance and egress.
In deepest shade where the mound of rocks abutted a corner of the cave, a large raven blended easily into the gloom. His head moved slightly from time to time, as he drank in every detail of the drama unfolding before him.
His cursory inspection complete, Andrew approached a still defiant Beatriz, who kicked at him savagely. Pinning her throat in the crook of his arm, he drew his knife blade slowly across her throat from ear to ear. “Do not act up again,” he warned. He removed her blindfold, gag, and wrist restraints. “Now build us a fire.”
Even though Omar seemed to be over the worst of his shock, he was not up to the task of participating in what would essentially be a press conference with Rory, Esther, and Red Top. While his poetic utterances made perfect sense to him, humans generally scratched their heads—not, Omar knew, due to fleas—and required further versifying, annoying repetitions, often some pantomime—it could all be quite demanding. Usually he was up for it, even found the exercise enjoyable. Tonight, though, he was tired, and opted instead to use Red Top as a go-between. The two friends spent fully five minutes exchanging a long series of what Rory and Esther could only characterize as moans, yowls, squeaks, and loud rumbles, accompanied by various undulations of their tails, opening and closing of eyes, ear movements, and episodes of self and buddy grooming.
Then Red Top spoke. “Omar, as we know, left earlier tonight to greet Beatriz and Lucifer and escort them through the tunnels. Making his way along the creek bed, he was startled to see a solo Lucifer winging in his direction. Our corvine friend, however, quickly set his mind at ease—they had only arrived earlier than expected, and Lucifer thought to intercept Omar and urge a bit of speed.
“So they flew and ran to the falls, where Lucifer had left Beatriz sitting on the ledge beneath the cataract not more than ten minutes before, soothing her scratched-up ankles and shins after the long scramble down from the fire-road. But she was nowhere to be found.
“They conferred briefly, deciding that Lucifer would do a flyover to the south, while Omar would enter the tunnels and look for any clues. He senses right away that no-one has entered the tunnels leading to the Castle, and instead heads down the left-hand passage. Arriving at the pile of rock and boulder, he first notices a pattern of loose rock scattered out from the base, as would naturally occur if someone climbed the mound. Even from below, he can hear voices from the cavern beyond—a man’s and a woman’s. He then carefully climbs, heedful of not dislodging even a single rock, and arrives at the top. Here he encounters the scene he first described to us so vividly at the cottage—of course, we all know that La Llorona signifies Beatriz, but who would have guessed that the man risen from the dead was Grinfels, miraculously twenty-odd years old again?”
His audience emitted various shrieks and groans of disbelief, but Red Top held up a paw to request their patience, and continued his story. “Omar, of course, was as shocked as you are now, but gathered his wits to return outside and climb the nearest highest boulder. Soon Lucifer returned northward from his reconnaissance, and flew down to join Omar once more. Again they decided to part forces—Omar returning to the Castle to alert us, and Lucifer to roost atop the mound of rock and keep his eye on Beatriz and her captor.”
“We must go at once, before she comes to harm,” Esther said decisively. “Surely with our greater numbers and superior knowledge of the terrain we can eke out an advantage.”
“If only we could forge upstream just south of the falls, and come to the cavern from below—the element of surprise would be a great advantage,” said Rory.
“There is a very narrow passage about six feet behind the top of the falls,” said Red Top, “hidden among the exposed roots of the ancient live oak, but only Omar or I could negotiate it. And neither one of us is a very good swimmer.”
“Then we must arm ourselves as best we can, keep our wits about us, and trust to fate,” concluded Rory.
Our four heroes turned as one to enter through the kitchen and retrieve their personal weapons from various locations within the Castle—Esther and Rory their pistols, Omar his slingshot, and Red Top his whistle. Alone among the Castle regulars in possessing no grasping facility, he had designed a whistle—unambiguously proven effective through field testing on his aggrieved roommates—whose expressed pitch caused an instantaneous loss of bowel control. Not exactly your standard “force plus one,” but an effective deterrent in its own right.
But a sudden apparition bolting from the darkness of the garden rendered all their frantic theorizing moot. A somewhat dishevelled Beatriz de la Fuente staggered into the faint circle of light from the kitchen.
“You! Then the cards did not lie,” she exclaimed, finally able to talk. In character, she let her professional curiosity—as a practitioner of Santería, she specialized in the fascinating but still poorly understood intersection of the material and spiritual worlds—initially trump any concerns about her personal safety, and so continued. “Who has ensorcelled you?” Beatriz asked suspiciously. “This is indeed a professional job.” She circled the young man cautiously, looking him over slowly from head to foot. “My sincere congratulations.” Then her brow darkened as she recalled her very present, and very real danger. “What do you want
Andrew Grinfels looked at her askance, as if she were not dealing from a full deck. “I only want to find my father. I can use you as a bargaining chip with Rory MacBean—surely he knows what has become of him.”
Beatriz thumped her forehead, laughed at her own foibles, then grew abruptly serious. “I saw the villain last in detention at the Castle, awaiting federal authorities to take him into custody. I can only hope and pray that he has met a merciless and painful end.”
“This is my father you are talking about,” countered her instantly enraged captor. “A man who saved the lives of thousands of abandoned children, and never asked a penny for himself.”
Beatriz was initially dumbstruck, and then let the ineluctable reality of the situation crystallize within her mind: How could even the son escape the masterful manipulations of Arthur Grinfels? Then a plan began to form in her artful psyche.
Adopting a tone both powerless and conciliatory, she addressed the younger Grinfels. “Might I trouble you for a drink of water? I cannot remember the last time I drank.” Swaying slightly on her feet, she seemed almost on the verge of fainting. Andrew, still scowling, nevertheless obliged her, dropping the bucket to the stream coursing below the cave. He then found two stones with suitable concavities from the great heap at the entrance, dipped them into the pail, and served first his captive, then himself.
A seemingly overwhelmed Beatriz broke into great sobs, and as her tears dimpled the surface of her drink, the young man came closer to her, stiffly extending his arms as if to comfort her. Then, red-faced, he let them fall uselessly to his side, and stood about like a self-conscious teenager, shuffling his feet, and running his hand across his scalp over and over.
Just as I thought, Beatriz said to herself. Only a confused son, good-hearted and loyal. No amount of persuasion from me, from Rory and Esther and Red Top, could ever bring him to see his father in the light of truth. As he lifted his chin, she saw the resolve reaffirm itself in his eyes, and he clicked his knife blade open again. “That fire,” he said in a loud, flat voice curiously devoid of menace. “We’ll need it now. Tomorrow morning you bring me to Rory.”
“No,” answered Beatriz evenly, “I won’t be going with you. And you will begin that journey alone tonight. Starting now,” she said, turning and flinging her water in his face.
He thrust his knife violently forward, but the blade encountered only empty air, so poor was his aim—Andrew Grinfels had been instantly blinded, and Beatriz moved easily out of his way.
“Let me tell you now the course of your travels over the next month or so. You may or may not be blind for the rest of your life—in the final analysis that depends on you, on whether you can accept the unfolding truth in your heart of hearts.
“The potion I threw in your eyes, which I activated with my own tears, the tears of a mother whose daughter was kidnapped and subsequently abused by Arthur Grinfels for four long years, will display the truth to your eyes, willing or not. You will see your father’s life, your life, and the lives of hundreds of young men and women appear as if in a newsreel. You will not be able to turn it off, or avoid it, or distract yourself in any way. I have allowed you recourse to sleep, because I believe that your dreams will help you along the path. How long you wander with these images and voices in your head will ultimately rest with you.”
Beatriz then kicked the knife from his hand and rested its point briefly on his chin. She tied his wrists with the same strip that had bound her own, and led him back over the mountain of rubble—here the watchful Lucifer joined her, perching on her shoulder—through the passage, beneath the falls, and into the first of a series of tunnels that eventually led to the Castle. She removed his restraints, reassured him he would not go without food and water, almost gently squared his shoulders in the right direction, and said softly, “Go now, and even in terror, see the final joy in your heart. You do not realize it now, but I have given you the hope of ages—guard it wisely!”
The young man, his arms outstretched, shuffled forward and blended quickly with the darkness.
Our heroes’ jaws dropped as of one accord, and only the countervailing laws of biophysics kept them from bouncing off the floor. How had Beatriz, and Lucifer, brought off this miraculous escape? Who on God’s earth might this Grinfels doppelganger be? And where was he now?
“I have set him on a vision quest,” a still agitated Beatriz explained, her eyes glittering strangely as if she were drugged, or possessed. “I literally cannot say another word at this time. I don’t make the rules, but I do follow them,” she added by way of fruitless clarification. “Now, sleep, I beg of you—sleep!”
Rory spoke up. “Might I suggest a little light refreshment first, a nightcap of sorts, in the company of friends?”
“For the record, I perceive a gentle but unmistakeable twisting of the arm,” demurred Beatriz.
“Duly noted, and I will further stipulate that your senses do not deceive you. Let us retire to the library. Esther, would you be so kind as to join us posthaste with tea and more of that divine carrot cake?”
“Why the library? The common room is more than adequate, and we could enjoy the fire as well.”
“I have my reasons. Pray indulge me.”
Esther exhaled a long-practiced sigh, and headed to the kitchen to prepare the tea-cart.
Esther wheeled her trusty tea-cart, laden with pots of three different teas—a chamomile spearmint blended with valerian; catnip; and Yorkshire Gold black—and the one-third remaining triple-layer carrot cake, its honey Neufchâtel icing a pointillist study in black poppyseed and orange zest, through the kitchen, bridging to the dining room, across the great common room, finally pausing to lower the retractable bridge used to enter the library. (Readers of even limited recall will remember that the first floor of the Castle, with the exception of the library and the kitchen, rotated to follow the path of the Sun.)
She was at first nonplussed to find the library vacant. Thinking they may have gathered around the table in the library’s small kitchen, she swivelled the rank of cookbooks to reveal the interior space—nothing. Then from across the room, she heard the distinctive sound of Omar’s voice, coming only slightly muffled from behind the stacks.
Pour l’enfant, amoureux de cartes et d’estampes,
L’univers est égal à son vaste appétit.
Ah! que le monde est grand à la clarté des lampes!
Aux yeux du souvenir que le monde est petit!
Un matin nous partons, le cerveau plein de flamme,
Le coeur gros de rancune et de désirs amers,
Et nous allons, suivant le rythme de la lame,
Berçant notre infini sur le fini des mers.
“Ah! ‘Le Voyage’ from Les Fleurs du Mal,” came Rory’s husky voice into the room. “My French, de longue désuétude, has grown rusty. Could you favor us with a translation?”
Again Omar’s dulcet tones seemed to enchant the very air.
The world is equal to the child’s desire
Who plays with pictures by his nursery fire--
How vast the world by lamplight seems! How small
When memory’s eyes look back, remembering all!--
One morning we set forth with thoughts aflame,
Or heart o’erladen with desire or shame;
And cradle, to the song of surge and breeze,
Our own infinity on the finite seas.
Esther, though entranced herself with Omar’s recitation, waited no more than thirty seconds into the ensuing silence before announcing her presence, in a tone both querulous and perhaps overloud. “Where is everybody? Has no-one the manners to greet me?”
Her questions were answered with gales of laughter, and Esther had no trouble in singling out the individually culpable harmonics of Rory and Beatriz, Red Top, Omar, and Lucifer. She was fast approaching the boiling point when Rory offered direction: “Esther, do peruse the biographies.” She obligingly scanned the four floor-to-ceiling ranks of biography, autobiography, and memoir, looking for the one book that would trigger, as did The Enchanted Broccoli Forest in the cookbook shelves, the swivelling mechanism opening the room behind to her passage. As she suspected, nothing stood out—it was a matter of knowing in advance. “Rory!” she bellowed at the top of her lungs. After a mercifully brief interlude of giggling from within, he said, “You know—the de Quincey Confessions.”
She did not know; but she soon found the slim, well-thumbed volume, its chocolate brown vellum binding soft and slightly crumbling, just at shoulder height in the second rank, and pushed it carefully but firmly toward the rear of the shelf. The second and third stacks bowed inward, and Esther spied, through a haze of sickly sweet smoke, her husband and Beatriz stretched out on flanking fainting couches, while Omar, Red Top, and Lucifer curled together, perhaps for warmth as much as pleasure, on a small Oriental rug between them.
Esther blew past the aforementioned boiling point. “Can I be dreaming? Am I even in my own house? Whence this den of iniquity? Your own room reeks after years of debauchery. Rory, how long have you kept this from me?”
He play-acted scratching his head, then drawled offhandedly, “Let me think—has it been ten or twenty years?”
Esther, far from amused at his ill-conceived buffoonery, lunged suddenly for Rory’s prized opium lamp, a fine and well preserved example of antiquity, with its cloisonné brass base, appropriately decorated with the petals, leaves, and stems of Papaver somniferum, and—rarity of rarities—Peking glass chimney. She raised it over her head, and was about to dash it to the floor. Only the counterintuitively quick reflexes of her husband, the iron grip of his hands about her wrist loosening her hold, and the deft collaboration of Beatriz saw the disputed object safely restored to its table.
Beatriz then spoke, and her tone was obviously conciliatory. “Esther, do excuse our rowdiness and lack of common civility. Rory, as befits his temperament, is the greatest perpetrator here, but we will all own a measure of responsibility.
“Opium, in addition to its more commonly known effects—benefits, some would say—does lower the usual threshold of what the psychologists call inhibition, and encourages impulsive behavior. It disinhibits, provokes a freewheeling enthusiasm which may easily be interpreted as inappropriate or rude. It is a species of drunkenness but, I would claim, une ivresse tellement plus sublime.”
Beatriz had taken Esther’s hand in her own, and now Esther’s shoulders slumped slightly in relaxation, the tense line of her jaw slackened. Her great friend Beatriz was safe—this was what really mattered. As she looked about her, she saw to her satisfaction the simple but aesthetically pleasing details Rory had incorporated into the decor. Perhaps she could come to terms with this unwelcome metastasis from Rory’s room.
True, the fainting couches were a bit trite for her taste, but the upholstery, a simple brocade in purest ivory, did not clash or compete with the Oriental throw rugs, with their intricate patterns and brilliant plant-based colors. Esther could tell even from a distance that these small rugs were the real deal; she recognized a classic Five Tree pattern in Turkmen madder red; another, also predominantly in reds, she strongly suspected was from Azerbaijan. She did find the swag velvet drapes over faux windows a tad over the top, but their strongly saturated burgundy was both stimulating and soothing to the eye. She noted with approval as well the spartan inclusion of only two portraits in the room, and these on opposite walls—quality reproductions of the modernist Reginald Gray’s Rimbaud, depicting a remarkably clean-cut yet vaguely dissolute youth, complete with hashish pipe and likely glass of absinthe; and a perhaps obligatory Thomas de Quincey by the prolific Scots portraitist and contemporary John Watson Gordon.
She now turned her attention to her husband, Beatriz, Lucifer, and her great and loyal feline friends. No longer did they seem a source of irritation, or worse, moral indignation. In this moment, they were simply themselves, and Esther felt the vibrating web of intersecting ideas and emotions. Curiously, she was no longer at the center, nor were any of the others—she sensed she was watching the tableau from a distance, not a great or uncomfortable distance, but one that expanded and contracted with the sole objective of keeping everything in the clearest possible focus.
Rory’s opium pipes, like his lamp, exhibited superior workmanship. The stems were ivory, the bowls jade. The removeable metal saddles were of a pleasingly oxidized copper, and Esther noted the greens and blues winking softly in the candlelight. Rory then picked up a pipe, and patted the couch cushion next to him.
Esther sat beside him, and Rory showed her how to hold the pipe. He
moved the lamp beneath the bowl, adjusted the flame, and nodded to her, pantomiming a slow and deep breath.
She was pleasantly surprised at the mildness of the smoke. It soothed and cooled her throat, and a tickling she feared would lead to sneezing or coughing subsided quickly. She imagined tasting the smell of a potpourri of white rose petals, freshly mown grass, and faint clove.
She did not wait long to notice a difference in her sensorium—hardly had she laid the pipe down than a vast stillness suffused the room. Rory took her hand and directed her attention to a pitcher of water on the low table. He tossed a round jade bead to its center, and Esther watched fascinated as the spreading concentric circles slowly—she could not believe how slowly—vanished one by one, beginning with the center. As the final outer ring settled to stillness, Esther saw her face briefly reflected in the water’s mirror, and then it too disappeared.
She felt a silent humming fill the room, and as she sat among her friends, she had the wholly unaccustomed and comforting sensation that everything was being done expressly for her. Instead of breathing, she was being breathed; and she realized, in great good humor, that if she were any more relaxed she would be dead.
Finally she spoke, and was at first vaguely alarmed at the perceived
intrusiveness of her own voice. The others seemed somewhat startled as well—it had been a full ten minutes since anyone had spoken. She addressed no-one in particular.
“Beatriz, of course, could not have known. She had already left with Lucas and Lena. Lucifer knew the score, but we swore him to secrecy. I can understand Omar’s confusion—he doesn’t experience space and time as
“What precisely could I not have known?” asked Beatriz, suddenly all ears.
“That your captor could not have been the elder Grinfels.”
“Let us say that it is just not possible. I imagine you thought the young man was a sorcerer’s creation.”
Beatriz freely admitted it, and then spoke plainly. “He told me straight up he was Grinfels’ son.”
“And you set him to endless wandering. Where and why?”
But Beatriz was done talking, and the gently debauched party enjoyed their tea and cake in silence. They then for convenience returned only as far as the library, and its several comfortable couches and chairs, to spend the night.
Less than three miles way, a young man blindly wandered a maze of underground tunnels, his mind a kaleidoscope of reeling images. As Beatriz fell asleep, so did he, surrendering instantly to the welcome oblivion.
Esther easily rose before the others, perhaps owing to her lesser indulgence the night before. Red Top, Omar, and Lucifer woke mere minutes later (the secondhand smoke induced a not unwelcome dreaminess and relaxation, but no hangover), and the four gathered in the kitchen to plan and assemble what would likely be brunch rather than breakfast.
Esther still chafed under the not strictly deserved stigma of playing second fiddle to Rory in the culinary realm. On the (to her) regrettably rare occasions when they entertained company, she seized the opportunity to add to her credentials, to boost her reputation as more than just a baker of truly superior cakes, scones, and muffins. Of late, too, her resourcefulness in turning out numerous praiseworthy entrées using such a limited palette of ingredients had won her several standing o’s (the felines simulated this by raising their tails to a 90-degree angle, and twitching the tips from side to side; Lucifer by standing on one leg and raising and lowering his wings) from her roommates.
So she was definitely gaining in confidence—and this morning decided to reach for the heavens with her first-ever soufflé. The most difficult part, she chuckled to herself, will be getting the inebriants to table in a timely fashion. The serving window for such a delicate and temperamental creation was regrettably small, and Red Top, as sous-chef, would also have the responsibility of herding two likely groggy and possibly grouchy bipeds to table. Omar, meanwhile, was dispatched to the creek to gather fresh watercress, and Lucifer to the garden to assemble a bouquet of early blooms.
Esther set eggs out to reach room temperature, and had just finished grating gruyère and parm-regg. As she grouped jars of herbs in a neat circle on the table, she heard a faint rustling behind her, and none other than Beatriz de la Fuente shuffled amiably to her side, arms open wide in greeting.
“Do forgive me for my less than admirable behavior last night,” she said. “First I arrive in truly melodramatic fashion. Then I aid and abet your already wayward husband in his vice of choice. I can only plead nervous exhaustion—the ordeals of the previous hours truly took it out of me, and the prospect of softening the contours of my jangled psyche proved irresistible.”
Esther laughed good-naturedly. “Understood, my dear friend. And I, as well, feel I may have talked out of place in pressing you for such details in your obviously delicate state.”
“All water under the bridge,” Beatriz replied, slack-wristing the air in the Jewish manner, which shared familiar nonverbal trope cracked them both up immediately, and dispelled any lingering trace of uneasiness between them. “Now, how may I help you and Red Top?”
“Would you be so kind? A simple fruit salad,” Esther answered, pointing out a heaping bowl of fruit on the kitchen counter. The wooden bowl itself, fully two feet wide and nine inches deep, had been carved and finished by Rory from a single cut of a red cedar tree toppled five years ago by a particularly violent winter storm. Its complex matte grain shimmered softly in the early morning sunlight streaming in from the garden terrace—it was Esther’s custom to prop open the back door while she was cooking—and the years had not diminished its distinctive scent, which was instantly and delightfully recognizable as one entered the kitchen. Beatriz took her time in choosing, and finally settled on Dancy tangerines, McIntosh apples, and early black ruby plums—Beatriz’s first, and happy, encounter with a freestone plum. She tossed the cut fruit with lime juice, added coarsely broken toasted walnuts, and after consulting with Esther, a drizzling of Calimyrna fig balsamic (made using the finest figs of that cultivar, pollinated by the fig wasp) barely sweetened with honey, whisked with a generous pinch of mace. Omar had returned with some sprigs of spearmint as well, and these Beatriz arranged over the salad.
A beaming Esther wheeled her tea-cart to the garden patio after a resounding success at the breakfast table—her fledgling soufflé had met with unanimous critical acclaim, and Rory, notoriously chary of praise, actually led the hallelujah chorus.
Despite the excellent food, the breakfast gathering itself had been a relatively subdued affair. Perhaps the meal itself contributed to the paucity of conversation, the savoring of each bite commanding full attention. No-one, it seemed, was in any rush to talk about yesterday’s harrowing adventures and still unresolved mysteries.
But as Esther distributed coffee, tea, and pastries, the idle chitchat that had characterized the breakfast table gave way abruptly, thanks no doubt to Rory’s opium-cleared brain, to more substantive matters. The rarely circumspect host—whose past relations with Beatriz had often been rocky—started out in high gear. “What were you thinking, Beatriz, in setting that monster loose? I could have dealt with him much more effectively—and unearthed invaluable data about so-called cold cases as well. ”
“I trust my intuition. I believe he truly is an innocent young man, understandably angry about the unexplained disappearance of his father.
Of course I disapprove of his actions yesterday—kidnapping me in hopes of getting to you, and the truth. Rory, just what is the truth about Arthur Grinfels?”
Rory, without moving his head, looked quickly to Esther, who communicated some private signal to him—perhaps a hand to one earlobe, a slight tilt of the chin, the drooping of an eyelid. “Let us simply say that his days of predation are safely behind him. And now the sins of the father—trust me, this is no innocent young man, but a cold and calculating son bent on revenge. I am not safe with him at large—”
“Nonsense!” interrupted Beatriz. “You are simply being paranoid, and your megalomania is showing. He wants closure, and as I open his mind to the truth, he may seek redemption as well. But he will need the whole truth about his father, and you seem intent on keeping that a well-guarded secret. Why?”
“I have my reasons, and you would be well advised to respect them.”
Beatriz glared at him, then coolly replied, “I can get Omar to talk.”
Rory advanced to within an inch of her face, his index finger stabbing the air. “Just how much do you value your life, Ms de la Fuente?”
Esther rushed to separate them, and collared her husband roughly. “Rory! That is enough. Beatriz is our guest, and I will not see her treated this way.”
Rory locked eyes back and forth between Esther and Beatriz. “Then she had best mind her p’s and q’s, and let the real professionals handle this case.” He then strode resolutely back into the house, his necessarily voluminous cloak billowing behind him.
“Beatriz, please excuse me for a while. Do not hesitate to ask Red Top or Omar for assistance in any way.” So saying, Esther followed after her husband, and the two could be seen wildly gesticulating as they passed from kitchen to dining room.
“Omar,” said Beatriz, “I have no intention of coercing you in any way—that was simply my way of moving this drama along in a particular direction. I am hoping, however, that with your intimate knowledge of the tunnels, I could recruit you as courier for perhaps a month? You need only carry a light backpack, and your dexterity and know-how will easily see your per diem of $100 earned in well under two hours. Are you game?”
Omar’s reply, though silent, was unequivocal—he jumped to her lap, settled comfortably, and gazed up at her, eyes wide.
Esther rejoined her friends on the garden terrace after fully an hour’s absence. She seemed distracted and nervous, but overall had a determined air. “Please excuse my long desertion—only now have Rory and I reached any kind of detente.”
“I trust you did not have to sell the farm,” said Beatriz, still clearly affronted at Rory’s attempt to bulldoze her.
“Hardly,” replied Esther, and then continued in a tone both conciliatory and somewhat hard-edged. “But I do consider it best policy to respect both your and Rory’s points of view, however irreconcilable they appear to be. The bottom line is this: I have negotiated a fortnight’s time for you, free and clear, and my husband’s personal pledge of noninterference. After that, all bets
Beatriz jumped up, and seemed on the verge of mounting a strong counteroffensive. But then her face relaxed, she let her balled fists loosen and her arms swing freely at her sides, and took Esther’s hand in a firm clasp of agreement. “As always, my friend, you have gone the extra mile. How can I express my appreciation?”
Again Esther seemed both placating and forthright. “Just as I have asked Rory, I shall ask you: do try to be civil to one another. I don’t want us dining separately, living in a state of outright or looming warfare.”
“Agreed,” said Beatriz, “and upon further reflection, I can understand Rory’s position—he has too much Grinfels history to see things so differently so quickly. Trust me, the topic of Andrew Grinfels will come up again—I will tread lightly, but I am also absolutely certain that my assessment is correct.”
“If I were able to broker a meeting, a bargaining session, would you be willing to participate?”
“Absolutely,” affirmed Beatriz, “but can you give me a week before the conference? I have a strong hunch that events will conspire by that time to not only assure Rory’s willingness, but bring him wholeheartedly on board with me as well.”
Esther’s eyes opened wide, and she practically roared with laughter. “Red Top may well be making book on that hunch—did you know that that is one of his favorite amusements, along with skinning us alive at any and every game of chance he can inveigle us into?—and I would be among the first to lay a goodly sum at 100-to-1 odds against you.”
“This grows curiouser and curiouser,” Beatriz replied good-naturedly. “I may be able to pay off my mortgage sooner than I thought.”
The orange tabby, rousing himself quickly from half-slumber, said matter-of-factly, “The betting cage will be open from nine to five, seven days a week. Omar or Lucifer will be glad to assist you.”
“Where should I direct my steps?” enquired Beatriz.
“Come to the foot of the garden, and you will find the Red Top Detective Agency.”
Now Beatriz’s eyes opened like saucers. “That’s a new one on me. When did this come about?”
“Have you an hour or two to spare?” Red Top answered. “Come with me to the office. I don’t work weekends, so we’ll have the place to ourselves.”
“Esther, will you excuse me for a while? I am intrigued with our friend’s entrepreneurial spirit.”
“I fully understand—in fact, I have taken the grand tour myself, and would wholeheartedly recommend it.”
“Thank you—for this, for everything. I do have one further favor to ask. It may seem at first strange, but I will explain later. Do you have a shallow glass bowl or cistern I can borrow, a bit less than two feet in diameter?”
“Offhand, I can think of two or three likely candidates,” Esther answered, extending a curious look in Beatriz’s direction.
“Excellent.” She then walked casually with Red Top towards the foot of
Omar found the young man still wandering the set of tunnels closest to the waterfall. The black feline’s acute hearing and impeccable sense of direction tracked Andrew Grinfels down in less than five minutes, and he then meowed and rubbed against his leg. The lonely and newly blinded man was naturally ecstatic to find any kind of companionship more cuddleworthy than spiders and mice, and he stroked the glossy feline eagerly from head to tail. Of course, he instantly noticed the saddlebags Omar was carrying, and soon found the two bottles of water, dried apricots, and beef jerky they contained. The bags emptied, Andrew reached down again to express his thanks, but his benefactor had left without a sound.
In a flabbergasting display of largesse, Rory had consented to allow Beatriz use of his library retreat for her mediumistic purposes. At dinner that first night—technically, the second night since her arrival—she had sketched out her basic requirements: a totally dark, windowless room; a glass-topped table; candles; and the glass bowl she had requested of Esther earlier.
The session was scheduled to begin precisely twenty minutes past the rising of the moon, and everyone was invited. Rory, while not wanting to appear enthusiastic, could not help but harbor a certain excitement as the time grew near—now, he thought, the charlatan’s true colors would show for all to see. He hoped the frisson of schadenfreude he felt along the length of his spine was not also tellingly reflected by a twinkling eye, or worse, a cunning smile. “Here’s to a newfound spirit of cooperation,” he said, raising his wineglass in a toast to their guest. Beatriz seemed genuinely pleased and flattered, and raised her own glass in return. “Rory, do forgive me for my often brash tongue—do not take this amiss, but you of all people know exactly how I might feel. Let us go forward together.”
“Hear, hear!” chorused the assembled company.
They then retired to the common room for a simple dessert of cheese
and fruit—Esther had paired leftover toasted walnuts with Comté, and goat’s-milk Capricious with dried Kadota figs, and ringed the platter with the delightful sweet tang of sliced McIntosh—and a typical assortment of evening teas: Darjeeling for the bipeds, chamomile-catnip for the felines, and juniper berry for Lucifer. As they finished, the waxing half moon was just rising in the northern sky.
In the small windowless room, they arranged the fainting couches around a low, glass-topped table. The only light in the room came from a single candle beneath the table, its flame centered beneath a shallow glass bowl filled
Beatriz signalled for silence, and motioned the group to lean over the table and watch the mirrored surface of the water. She removed a small bell attached to a chain from her bodice, and rang it sharply once, deftly muting the clapper with thumb and forefinger. She then firmly flicked the water at its center, forefinger uncocking from thumb. As the concentric circles flattened and stillness returned to the water’s surface, an image began to form. At first it was hazy, out of focus, but it slowly became clearer and clearer. Then a collective intake of breath broke the silence of the room—only the focused, meditative breathing of Beatriz de la Fuente showed no change.
The tunnels were instantly recognizable—our heroes, singly and in various combinations of twos and threes and four—had walked these passages close to the falls innumerable times. Just as a seemingly monotonous desert landscape is filled with distinctive details and landmarks visible to the practiced eye, so too the Castle regulars saw a familiar outcropping here, a distant angled intersection there to unerringly focus their bearings.
And the young man, dressed in simple dark tee shirt and khakis, his arms extended like feelers at his sides, elicited a sure recognition as well—here was the very image of a young Arthur Grinfels. Then Beatriz spoke
softly, just above a whisper. “Rory, Esther, Omar, Red Top, Lucifer—meet Andrew Grinfels.”
Rory was the first to break the silence. “So you cleverly bugged the tunnels. Where have you hidden the receiver?” he said, leaning lower and feeling beneath the rim of the table. Then, not surprisingly for that exemplar of plain, often crude speech, he made the following observation: “He staggers about like a common drunk! Surely, Beatriz, you did not provision him with spirits for this so-called vision quest?”
Beatriz did not rise (or descend?) to the bait, but took a humorous tack instead. “But of course I did! The spirit of adventure, the spirit of the holy quest, the spirit of truth at all costs—”
A hardly amused Rory persisted. “Perhaps that weight of spiritual baggage explains his stumbling about, his constant steadying himself with his arms. One might think him blind.”
“As indeed he is,” answered Beatriz, looking Rory straight in the eye.
“Impossible! How came he hence, then? No unsighted, unguided person could possibly find his way to the falls, subdue you and hold you hostage. Well?”
Beatriz paused to flick again the surface of the water, and the image disappeared. “I simply brought his physical sight in harmony with his spiritual state, which has been blinded by a lifetime of deception from his father. Now I will show him the truth—I will send sound and image to his psyche. If he chooses, he will see again.
“Here’s where you come in, Rory. I know only so much from following the news over the years, from my conversations with Lucas and Lena. Will you open the Grinfels files for me?”
“It would be a waste of time. At every turn, his tracks are covered, his defense ironclad.”
“I do not doubt it—but I have a great advantage, the psychic gifts I can bring to bear. If I know actors, time, and place, I can unfold the entire history—who did what, where, when, and why. For example, I could see a letter written but never sent, hear a telephone conversation, follow someone from point A to point B. If, however, I were to go day by day from, say, January 1, 1977 to July 30, 1980, it would take exactly that elapsed amount of time to replay the events in my mind. I would end up exhausted—after over three years!—and perhaps the proud possessor of a few barely useful facts. If I studied your files, however—and may I be so bold?—if I had the added benefit of your assistance in that endeavor, I could pinpoint perhaps three or four extremely fruitful leads—”
“And your final goal?” said Rory.
“To give a worthy young man the life he deserves—to break, if only once, that horrid cycle of abuse that follows generation after generation. And I would not be surprised if new evidence encouraged other victims to come forward as well, to tell the stories they have borne alone for years and years.”
“I’m out of my depth here, with sorcery-induced blindness and this search for a needle in a haystack. For all I know, your spell will wear off tomorrow, and this son of a Grinfels will come gunning for me. I need time to think this over, to confer with Esther and Red Top and Omar.”
“I would be honored to work with you,” Beatriz reemphasized, “but will respect whatever decision you take.” Then turning her gaze slowly to include everyone in the room, she said in a tone both grateful and importunate, “My strength is not all it should be, and I must retire early. My gentle good-night to all.” She rose, and passed quietly through the swivelling stacks.
Now it was Esther’s turn to speak, and while she addressed the company at large, she more than once let her gaze rest a few extra seconds on her husband. “That was no camera feed—that was a genuine séance. Omar?”
The black feline merely slit his eyes momentarily, sure sign of agreement.
“And you will recall, Rory, that Beatriz from the very first realized that Omar was not a golem,[*] even though you were so convinced otherwise. Think of the great debt we owe her for that alone!”
Rory had no defense there. Then slowly but surely, he raised his head from thought, and spoke decisively. “I will work with Beatriz. I have nothing to lose but some ill-conceived pride, and there may be a world of redemption to gain for Beatriz, for Lucas and Lena, for Andrew, for one more soul whose story wants to be told—”
Tears formed at the corners of Esther’s eyes, tears of pride for her husband and joy at his staunch willingness to roll up his sleeves once more and get
Her mischievous streak fully on display, she wiped the tears from her eyes, and proposed a celebration sure to please at least one other organism in the room, and not unserendipitously, the one she wanted most to honor. “Rory, would you fire up that pipe for me? It has been a long, long day.”
Two felines and one raven drew closer to the couple, and a dutiful husband bent to the task.
At the close of day, as the last horizontal rays of the sun evenly illuminate the landscape, bringing every detail, large and small, coarse and delicate, colorful and drab, into stunning and equal relief for perhaps one minute, at most two, a clear-eyed observer, a sharp-shinned hawk for instance, would have no trouble discerning and describing the two men cresting the farthest hill on the horizon.
Both were tall, slim, and muscular; the graying temples of one caught the dying light, whereas the other’s hair, indistinguishable from the gathering dark, must have been deep brown or black. As the men disappeared beyond the slope, the final, brilliant rays of the plunging sun starkly outlined the contorted branches of an ancient cottonwood, a lone black bird at its very top, and then darkness was sudden and total, as if a candle flame were abruptly extinguished.
Local geographers and historians—the line between the two disciplines was often blurred in the county stretching from the seat of Clover in the north, past the Castle, and on to Caroline and a few unincorporated townships even farther south—relying on perhaps a half-dozen firsthand newspaper accounts by explorers over the span of the last century, had learned the noteworthy significance of that venerable cottonwood—it marked the southernmost known entrance, via a narrow and steep defile fully a quarter-mile long, to the underground Lost River.
Now in the total darkness, his path assured by decades of familiarity, by unerring instinct, a large raven soundlessly leaves the highest branch of that tree and just as silently wings his way due north.
Beatriz de la Fuente powered through breakfast the following morning, eager to attack the Grinfels files and make some real headway. So it was with a growing sense of irritation leading to frustration that she watched an unusually chummy Rory and Esther loll about the table in maddeningly desultory conversation, each pause to gaze mutually moony-eyed longer than the last. Often they practically roared with giddy laughter, and called time and again for a bemused Omar—the extra digits on his front paws providing a prehensile function—to refresh their coffee cups for the umpteenth time.
She finally stood and spoke. “If I am not interrupting anything terribly important, I would modestly propose that we spend the fast waning hours before lunch with the patiently waiting Grinfels files.”
A suitably chastened Rory and Esther snapped to attention—if snapping could be defined as the conciliatory abandonment of fully slouching, and then making eye contact with any third person—seemingly eager to distance themselves from any suspicion of dereliction of hostly duty. “Of course, of course,” boomed Rory. “Ladies, follow me.” A squawk from Lucifer conveyed his wish to be included in the investigative party. “And gentlemen,” he added, nodding to not only Lucifer but Omar and Red Top as well.
Rory’s insistence on secrecy was legendary, and undoubtedly only the Castle regulars knew the more ridiculous depths he had historically plumbed in obedience to that idiosyncrasy. Perhaps the most bandied about quirk was his habit of hiding the last cookie or chocolate from jar or box, and then forgetting where he had stashed it—truly the apotheosis of secrecy!
So no-one was particularly surprised at being blindfolded and asked to link hands in a daisy-chain as Rory led them to the Grinfels files. The room itself was obviously a cul-de-sac in one of the many tunnels branching from the bowels of the Castle, but aside from the ten three-drawer gunmetal file cabinets circling the walls, there was nothing to distinguish it from any number of its ilk. Little did Rory realize that Omar or Red Top could retrace these steps by smell alone, but of course they would never let him in on that.
As the noon hour approached, and the lamps’ batteries had lost much of their illuminating power, Beatriz, with the inestimable help of Rory’s nearly photographic memory, had gleaned two promising leads from the files—one, a newspaper clipping detailing the budding career of a newly certified elementary school teacher, a handsome young man by the name of Arthur Grinfels; the second, a curious three-liner in the crime column later that same year—a Velma Grinfels had called 911 to report a domestic violence incident; perhaps a red herring, but then again, how many Grinfels could there be in a town of ten thousand? These were not photocopies, but the actual, now yellowed newspaper articles, and Beatriz felt sure this intimate connection with the past would help in her psychic quest for the stories behind the stories.
Rory then banded together the two pertinent file folders, and left them on a small desk near the entrance. Blowing dust from a clipboard, he used its attached pen to enter a brief description of the contents being checked out, and then dated and initialed the log. Again his companions donned their blindfolds, and joined hands to follow the pied piper back to the Castle
Rory’s typically robust appetite was hardly remarkable, but her lunch companions found ample fodder for catty—often literally so, as Red Top and Omar contributed their two cents—commentary as Esther, ordinarily a slow and moderate eater, devoured three plates of linguine al pomodoro in rapid succession, pausing only to belch (and not always discreetly) from time to time before attacking her plate once more.
“Just what was the name of your finishing school?” Beatriz enquired. “Esther! Do stop picking at your food,” Rory managed in one of the few brief interludes that his mouth was not otherwise fully occupied. Red Top put out stagily whispered feelers, trying to make book on how many plates his mistress would eventually consume. And Omar began reciting the perennial Coleridge classic—“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure dome decree—” Only Lucifer held his tongue, perhaps grateful for an occasion involving long-stranded pasta wherein he did not take reluctant center stage.[†]
The luncheon party were just settling to a light dessert and tea on the garden patio when the phone rang. Esther answered on the Castle’s single line, an old wall-mounted dial phone in the kitchen. It was Evelina, calling for her mother. Soon Esther called Beatriz to the phone, put more water on for
tea, and rejoined the others. After five or so minutes, the tenor of the conversation changed, and the garden party rightfully assumed that Lucas had come on the line.
Lucifer flew to Beatriz’s shoulder, and made gentle cooing sounds in her ear. She said her good-byes to Lucas, then added, “Wait a bit before speaking; I’ll get Esther to switch to speakerphone.” This externally cobbled feature was a nod to Red Top and Lucifer, the two Castle citizens constitutionally unable to handle the headpiece, the former lacking a grasping facility and the latter unable to long sustain bearing the weight of the ancient receiver.
Lucas, in addition to fluent English and a workable knowledge of Spanish, had gained, through native linguistic talent and long association with Lucifer, a general facility in Raven as well. One salient characteristic of the language
is its sudden changes in volume and pitch, and many humans found it disagreeable, if not outright painful, to the ear. As Lucas and Lucifer settled in for what appeared to be a long conversation, Rory closed the door from the patio to the kitchen. Red Top and Omar excused themselves, pleading the allure of a good afternoon nap. They scooted through a flap door communicating to the kitchen, presumably on their way upstairs to their respective rooms. But they stopped and lounged comfortably in a discreet corner of the kitchen, listening carefully to the ongoing conversation.
Red Top, more fluent than his companion in the corvine language, whispered bits and pieces transcribed into English in Omar’s ear. Yes, there is no doubt; this is Grinfels’ son. For a while the voices grow hushed, and Red Top cannot understand them. Then you will meet us tonight? A long pause. Should we be interfering with Beatriz’s plan? Hers may or may not work, but mine will; meanwhile, an innocent man is essentially being tortured—a blind minotaur in a maze. You will prepare him for the news? Yes, I will give him the courage he needs to heal—I can do no more. I will meet you then, and together he and I will float
the river back to my old home. Won’t mother-in-law be surprised! A grim but somewhat satisfied laugh from Lucas ends the conversation, in synch with an enthused caw from Lucifer.
Then a suddenly stern Lucifer strides purposefully to the felines’ corner. “Shall I have both your words? Not a hint of this must leave the room.” They both nod gravely in agreement, get up, stretch luxuriously, and head upstairs to fulfill their promised naps.
Lucifer, wanting to leave undetected, gives the felines suitable time to settle in, then follows their path through the single-brick-wide passageway that flanks the fireplace, and has available exits on both the second floor and the roof. The great raven then flanks north and west before setting his course south for the tunnels behind the falls.
We have recounted the history of Lucas Lapierre elsewhere,[‡] but a brief recap is in order. Lucas and Arthur Grinfels, who meet as fellow teachers in their early twenties, looked physically similar—both tall and wiry, both dark-haired. This unfortunate coincidence played a large hand in Lucas’s fate.
A third-grade student, abused by a “thin, tall, dark-haired man,” confides in his teacher. That selfsame teacher, Grinfels, through innuendo and lies convinces the boy that his abuser is Lucas. 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.
In his nomadic life, he chances upon an injured forty-year-old raven, and nurses him back to health. In return, the raven Lucifer initiates Lucas into the ways of the shaman. Following a chance encounter with another fugitive—Evelina, daughter of Beatriz, and teen sex-toy of Arthur Grinfels—Lucas heals a dying Omar, and sets in motion the events that will see Beatriz and Evelina reunited, Grinfels captured, Omar cleared of suspicion of being a golem, and finally, the blossoming romance and marriage of Lucas Lapierre and Evelina (Lena) de la Fuente.
After soothing his throat with a welcome iced tea following the exertions required in speaking Raven, Lucas began to assess the situation Lucifer had talked him into. As Lena brought him the tea, she was still chuckling after a protracted bout of belly laughs, guffaws, and screams of delight at her husband’s pseudo-operatic performance—the impressive range of notes, the volume which often leapt from a whisper to a shout, and back again, the truly inhuman screeches, clicks, rasps, grindings, and squawks.
Now, as his wife exited to the back garden, still smiling, Lucas took the time alone to remember and reflect. If only the timing had been even slightly better, he thought, I could have turned the tables. In his mind’s eye he saw again in perfect detail that scene in the boiler room, remembered thinking as he watched: I will never forget the smallest detail here. And he hadn’t, even though over twenty years had elapsed.
In addition to his part-time teaching duties, he tended the furnaces, dealt with the occasional electrical problem, and did plumbing work at the school. Loading his coal scuttle early one morning, he thought he detected low voices from the direction of the boiler room, and hastened quietly to the doorway. Grinfels grabs the boy roughly by the ears and hair, knees him in the small of the back so that he is bent over a small armchair upholstered in red and green chintz, and yanks down his sweatpants until they rest atop his red sneakers. Spotting Lucas behind him, Grinfels pulled a small revolver from his waistband, cocked the trigger, and pointed it meaningfully in his direction. Lucas quickly moved from the doorway, but listened from just outside the room. The boy whimpers, then cries and moans. Sudden silence—Grinfels must have gagged the boy. Now only the rhythmic slapping of flesh on flesh. “Be a good boy, now. This is how a son loves his father.”
The very next day, Arthur Grinfels called in the police and corroborated the sobbing testimony of another third-grader who had accused Lucas of abusing him. Lucas Lapierre is handcuffed and taken away. And the rest is history.
The vivid memories took their toll, and Lucas felt suddenly paralyzed with indecision. Then a snippet of conversation with Rory came suddenly to mind. The occasion was the farewell dinner for Beatriz, Lucas, and Lena at the Castle following Grinfels’s arrest. Everyone, felines and raven included, was drunk, and Rory in particular was uncharacteristically sentimental. “I was fifty-nine years old when I realized I was abused at age twelve. Can I ever stop imagining how my life might have been better if I’d known the truth earlier?” His friends and family rushed to embrace him as he wept the quick and hot tears of the child for whom there is no consolation.
It won’t be easy, Lucas decided, but I will do it. I will do it for Rory, and who knows, I may even be doing it for myself. He put a few provisions in a daypack, added two helmets with headlights, brought Lena up to speed, and began his trek north to the ancient cottonwood. If he kept up a good pace, he could make it well before sundown.
At the first branching of tunnels behind the falls, Lucifer caws loudly three times in quick succession. As the echoes fade, he hears a returning human shout. Raven and man continue this back-and-forth for another minute, and by then Lucifer, skilled at echolocation, has found the young man.
Lucifer lands on Andrew’s shoulder, and gently nuzzles his ear, cooing softly. Andrew reaches a trembling and shy hand to stroke the raven’s silken plumage. Lucifer then moves his beak rapidly from ear to ear, emitting a rapid series of low whistles. A startled look suddenly crosses Andrew’s face, and he cries out, “I can see again!,” then somewhat suspiciously, “How do you know my name? I can understand every word you say, but you still sound like a squawking crow.”
“Raven,” corrected Lucifer. “I have restored your paltry human sight, but if you are like most men, you will unknowingly trust it too much. I have taken the liberty of opening your third eye as well—that’s how you can understand me. Very soon you will need all the wisdom you can find, and your courage and self-love will be sorely tested.”
“Why all the riddles? I feel fine now, and cannot wait to see my friends again.” The young man stretched luxuriantly, and gazed in wide-eyed wonder at his surroundings, drab as they were. He sprinted from one end of the tunnel to the other, joyful to be alive in his body again.
“You will not be going home right away. First, there is a journey we must take. I will introduce you to Lucas, who once taught school with your father, and he will take it from there.”
Andrew bridled. “Who are you to tell me what to do? I come and go as
“You will not find that possible now. I suggest you try to leave this tunnel.”
A sneering and resolute Andrew walked quickly to the intersection leading back to the waterfall. Suddenly he was thrown backwards, landing roughly and ruefully on his buttocks. He confronted a nonchalant Lucifer. “What is this, voodoo? Black magic?”
“Nothing that esoteric, I am afraid,” answered the raven. “Just your run-of-the-mill force field.”
“So I am your prisoner?” asked Andrew.
“Funny how the tables turn,” Lucifer replied coyly. “But no, not strictly. As I said, we have a journey before us.”
“At least,” Andrew said peevishly, “I will meet an old friend of my father—”
“Friend!” screeched Lucifer. He then paused, as if deciding whether an explanation was necessary at this time.
He evidently concluded against it, and merely said calmly, “Follow me. We have a long trek, and I want to make it by late afternoon. Any funny stuff will get you exactly nowhere—unless you consider testing the limits of my temper a worthwhile destination.”
Andrew had nothing more to say. After shuffling and dragging his feet for a few yards in some futile yet probably necessary ritual denoting independence, he lifted his head, assumed a smile of sorts, and walked and ran to keep pace with Lucifer, who circled back from time to time.
At several points in their journey, the great raven stayed for half an hour at a time on either of Andrew’s shoulders, his beak close to the young man’s ear. Finally, they climbed the side of a steep ravine and saw the giant looming form of the cottonwood directly in front of them, its many branches like beckoning arms. A lone human figure stood to the right of the tree, and slowly raised his arms in greeting.
Beatriz had done her psychic homework, and was eager to interrogate Andrew about the domestic violence incident. She had fleshed out the story somewhat, but needed Andrew’s corroboration of a hazy detail before she could parse the scene more fully.
Dinner at the Castle that night had been a low-key affair—Esther for one was still recovering from her overindulgence at the lunch table (and perhaps a novice’s lingering hangover from the night before); Rory seemed morose and more than usually irritable; Red Top essentially monologued unchallenged about whatever topic struck his wandering fancy (tonight he bounced from fish farms to herbal remedies to the endangered tigers of Sumatra); Omar appeared lost in thought; Beatriz tried unsuccessfully to begin several conversations and then gave up, contenting herself with “Esther, please pass the bread,” or “Rory, would you kindly carve me a slice of ham?”; and Lucifer was AWOL.
The dinner party seemed to revive somewhat as they took tea before a gently crackling fire in the common room. Felines and humans initially sprawled every which way across the flanking leather sofas, but as the various teas of choice soothed or revived them, their postures gradually assumed the vertical and the first faint rumblings of what might evolve into civilized conversation could be heard.
The sun was sinking low, and Beatriz was eager to get to work. She gratefully noted a distinct yet muted renaissance of community, and began detailing her plans for the night. “I know for certain that Grinfels beat his wife, and engaged in relentless emotional abuse. But her mind then, and now, is hard to read; understandably, she popped sedatives as others might take vitamins, and she has recently been diagnosed with early-onset dementia.”
“What might you expect from Andrew?” asked Esther.
“Perhaps a snip of overheard conversation from his parents. Did Velma provoke her husband? Did she have something to hold over him, and he chose to beat her into submission? I see a blurred image of a boy, perhaps eight or nine years old, crouched like a dog, crying and whimpering. It is almost unbearably hot, and I can see the bottoms of his red Converse sneakers. But every time I recall the scene, it grows fainter and fainter.”
“Why would that happen?” Red Top asked.
“I am not sure—energetically, there could be any number of reasons.” She shivered slightly. “Am I sensing an interference, or is it only my overactive imagination?” She suddenly cast a suspicious glance in Omar’s direction, but the glossy black feline only met her with his usual sphinx-like stare. He then returned his gaze to the fire, just in time to watch a rectangular screen of yellow flame collapse and vanish.
Perhaps Beatriz had offended Omar; perhaps not. In any event, he did not leave with the others for the evening séance, but instead remained by the fire. Soon another screen began forming from the corners of four branches, and Omar again gazed directly into the pale yellow flame. The faces of Lucas and Lucifer gained clearer and clearer focus, and soon the trio were exchanging a variety of physical signals that may have constituted a common language, or an agreed-upon code—closing one or both eyes fully or partially; tilting and rotating the head left and right, and at clearly differing angles; and a half-dozen others—and any one of these duplicated two, three, four times in succession, or following one upon another in any serial arrangement.
The communication was accomplished in mere minutes, and Omar then joined the party in the library. A clearly exasperated Beatriz, and a variously bemused and increasingly bored audience intently watched the mirrored surface of the water, justly expecting the likeness of Andrew to appear in
But the young man never appeared, and Beatriz gestured Omar closer for verification. The black feline scanned the tunnels from falls to Castle—akin to his powers at pyromancy, he sensed presences by their individual heat fields, or signatures. Every parcel of aerobic matter in the universe, from bacteria to apples to humans, from birth to death and even somewhat beyond, elaborated its unique matrix of heat waves. Omar detected no human presence anywhere in the tunnels.
“Someone has broken my spell,” Beatriz declared, “and returned his sight. There is no other way.”
Omar conferred briefly with Red Top. After grooming his tail for nearly a minute, the orange tabby spoke. “Omar has a hunch, and begs our indulgence. Would we join him in a late-night ramble of sorts? The sky is clear, the
Rory and Esther raised their hands in agreement, but a still disgruntled Beatriz again glared at Omar. “Just what does he have up his sleeve?” she wondered aloud.
The remaining players, however, were already of one mind, and exchanged a round of familial glances.
“Let it be noted, for the record, that Omar neither now, nor at any possible future date, possesses or will possess any sleeve to have anything up,” Rory intoned magisterially. “And now, I suggest we provision ourselves for a midnight snack. Am I correct in assuming we have a bit of a trek before us?”
“About four miles,” said Red Top. “We will head south following the creek bed, skirt the falls to the east, and then arrive within minutes at our destination.”
“Esther, would you kindly join me in the kitchen to help assemble our moveable feast? And then we’re off.”
Esther, however, was not quite ready to leave. Picking up one of Rory’s exquisite pipes, she gestured to her husband and patted the cushion next to her. Red Top looked at his mistress first in wonder, and then lowered his head in thought.
Soon Rory and Esther hastened to their chores, giggling like schoolchildren. Beatriz, slack-jawed, watched their departure, and then firmed her gaze toward Omar, and Red Top as well. Was she imagining things, or were they silently snickering?
A chastened but still game Beatriz de la Fuente shook her head several times as if to clear cobwebs, then rose and headed upstairs to don jacket and hiking shoes. From beneath her bed in the guest room, she slid out a slim leather briefcase. Laying it on the bed, she quickly located two handmade dolls. Standing about four inches tall, they were stick figures from the twigs of trees, simple bodies with arms and legs, their cloth heads attached with wire, and the facial features denoted with stitches of thread. She then removed a small roll of masking tape from the briefcase, cracked her knuckles, and set to work. I have a few teeth left in my head, she reminded herself. And the night, though old, is still young.
There was no scarcity of firewood and kindling beneath the centuries-old cottonwood, and Lucas and Andrew soon had a strong blaze going well before sundown. Lucifer had provided only the briefest of introductions, supplying each with the other’s Christian name, before settling at the top of the huge tree and fluffing his feathers for warmth. He did not tuck his head preparatory to sleep; instead he carefully scanned his companions from his unparalleled vantage point.
As Andrew rises from his haunches to gather more firewood, Lucas quickly and quietly follows. He grabs him by the ears, knees him in the back to force him to the ground, and then starts pulling at the rear waistband of his pants. He moves his lips wetly to Andrew’s ear, flicks it with his tongue, and whispers, “Be a good boy, now. This is how a son loves his father.” The young man screams in terror, flails his arms uselessly, and then collapses in
Lucas lifts Andrew in his arms, and cradles him gently as they return to the fire. He staggers slightly beneath the weight, and tears course freely down his cheeks. Propping the unconscious Andrew against a boulder still warm from the late afternoon sun, he drapes his own jacket over the gently rising chest and shoulders, and moves close to the fire.
Lucifer wings noiselessly down and settles on Andrew’s shoulder. Lucas overhears and recognizes the incantatory rhythms of the shaman, and remembers afternoons long ago as he and Lucifer crossed many a wide sunlit field, the great raven’s beak close by his ear.
It will be fully an hour before a shaky Andrew, leaning heavily and gratefully against his new friend Lucas, descends the hill behind the cottonwood. Their flashlit helmets in place, they begin the steep drop to the river, and their
long float back to the cavern just above the falls. Lucifer, his mentoring accomplished, rests briefly atop the cottonwood, sights the North Star to confirm his bearings, and then heads back towards the Castle.
Lucas and Andrew dropped the final three feet to the shoreline. To their left, a roaring cataract of water explodes from the roof of the cavern, and falls thirty feet to the stream bed below. This is the farthest known source of the Lost River. They must walk single-file along a quickly narrowing shore, and within a minute they have run out of path. “Now we must float,” Lucas said, shrugging his backpack off his shoulders. “When I give the signal, grab both packs and roll onto your back. It will take us nearly two hours before the river is shallow enough for us to walk.”[§]
“It is so dark, I cannot even see the water,” answered Andrew.
“I will guide you, and bring us to the center of the stream, where the current is steadiest. That way we will float together. I remember how many strokes it takes—now place your pack against mine, clasp your hands around my chest, and I will take care of the rest.”
With Lucas’s athletic expertise, the task was soon accomplished, and Andrew passed Lucas his backpack. Now they floated in complete darkness, the silence only broken by the surprisingly loud sound of the water, amplified by the solid rock overhead.
“How fast is the water moving?” Andrew asked, reaching for Lucas’s hand. Lucas quickly moved his hand away, but Andrew persisted, and there was something about the young man’s grasp, needy and trusting and childlike all at once, that caused Lucas to relent.
“About three miles an hour,” he replied. “We should arrive easily before midnight.”
Lucas was a sensitive man, and a proud man as well. This prolonged physical intimacy with Andrew brought conflicted feelings—on the one hand, he accepted and even took a paternal pleasure in Andrew’s innocent handholding; Andrew, after all, was just the right age for a son that Lucas never had, and he seemed oddly immature for a man approaching thirty. And Andrew’s grip was in no way suggestive; nor was it yet that of a grown man, but somehow of a child fumbling uncertainly toward manhood. Still, Lucas could not shake the memory of this young man’s father, the man whose brutal dishonesty cost him so dearly, and he could not entirely separate the father and the son in his heart. Should not the son owe him at least a secondhand apology?
Then he abruptly realized: Andrew very likely does not know. Who could have told him among their mutual acquaintances? Beatriz possibly, but she had an agenda of her own; perhaps Lucifer, in his healing rituals, deemed it necessary to convey the full extent of the father’s evil.
The last thing he wanted was for Andrew to see him as the good father he now knew for the first time in his life never existed. Lucas asked himself the biblical question that has never found a universal answer: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” and, like many others before and likely after him, could find no answer. But I can rightfully insist on being known, he said to himself.
Then he broke the long silence between them. “Andrew, what do you know about your father and me?”
“Lucifer told me you taught school together when you were young, and being colleagues, I thought you might also be friends. When I said this, though, the crazy bird shrieked like someone had shot him.”
“I am not surprised. Arthur Grinfels, in addition to molesting you, and God knows how many other boys and girls, abused another third-grader, and pinned it on me. I spent fifteen years in prison, and can never get my good name back. No matter how innocent you are, and how exonerated you may be by facts uncovered later, you are always tainted, always stained.”
Andrew was struck dumb. Reflexively he released Lucas’s hand, perhaps suddenly ashamed. Then, between great, choking sobs, he cried out, “I am sorry! I did not know.” After several more minutes of crying, he asked, his tone at once apologetic and genuinely curious, “How could you bring yourself to help me, to free me from my life of lies? And then, keep helping me, asking nothing for yourself?”
This time, it was Lucas who reached for Andrew’s hand and took it firmly in his own. “I don’t know,” he answered quietly. “I honestly do not know. But somehow, I am glad. I keep thinking that Lucifer asked this favor of me for a reason, not just for you, but for me, too.” Then a shock of recognition: After twenty long years, I reached out for friendship with another man. I did it not because I was sure of him, but because I was suddenly sure of myself again.
“He does seem wise,” Andrew said.
“That I do know, beyond all doubt. Look, the crustaceans are beginning to appear on the walls. See their light? We can stand now, and walk.”
Man-boy and boy-man helped one another to their feet, and laughed together as they ran splashing to explore the albino crayfish from Mars with glowing red eyes.
“If it is not too much trouble,” Beatriz opined, her intent gaze shifting from Red Top to Omar, “I believe it would be useful to learn just what, or who, we are expecting. I for one am not especially enamored of our waiting room.” She shivered not from the cold, for she was suitably attired against the late night air, but at finding herself once again at the site of her recent captivity.
Before anyone could volunteer or hazard an answer, a sudden blackness hovered over the skylight, coalesced in the cone of light cast by the fire,
and landed among them, his glossy plumage and introductory caw unmistakeable—it was none other than Lucifer. After appropriate individual greetings to all present, he flew to Beatriz’s shoulder, and occupied her ear for several minutes.
The gamut of expressions animating Ms de la Fuente’s features could well be lauded for both their artistry and transparency—her face, as the expression goes, was an open book. One by one the emotions passed, some lasting mere seconds, some building as storm clouds, others seemingly frozen in time but then gone in the blink of an eye. In no particular order—indignation, curiosity, territoriality, anger, envy, admiration—and finally, resolve. Opening her rucksack, she withdrew two stick figures with missing arms and taped-over mouths, and threw them onto the fire. Almost immediately, two voices sound from the river below, and a man’s hands and elbows find purchase on the opening’s rim. Andrew Grinfels hauls himself into the circle of light. He then kneels for leverage, and reaches out his arms for the welcoming grasp of Lucas Lapierre.
Once again Andrew kneels, this time before Rory and Beatriz. He does not lift his eyes to theirs, but does extend his arms palms up in their direction. They see one large tear form in each of his eyes, and then roll slowly down his cheeks. Lucas clears his throat, and says in a husky voice raw with emotion, “Here is the finest man I have ever met.”
“Then rise, young Sir Andrew, and join your new family,” Rory proclaimed, his words echoing and re-echoing in the vastly intimate chamber.
“We have been waiting for you for a long, long time.”
[*] See Book Three, “Esther,” of The Four-Leafed Clover.
[†] See The Four-Leafed Clover, Book Four, “Omar.”
[‡] In The Four-Leafed Clover, Book Three, “Esther.”
[§] Lucas has made this journey before. See The Four-Leafed Clover, Book Three, “Esther.”