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Authors: Marion Zimmer Bradley

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BOOK: Ghostlight
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Truth had been raised by Katherine Jourdemayne's twin sister, Caroline, and Truth felt she had inherited much of her emotional self-sufficiency from the taciturn woman who had weathered the horrible death of her twin sister so stoically. Aunt Caroline had told Truth who her father was when she was old enough to understand, but in the seventies and early eighties it didn't seem to matter much. When the first journalist contacted her, Truth had even been surprised to discover that anyone still remembered Thorne Blackburn; he seemed to belong to the past, like LSD, the moon landing, and the Beatles. She had been courteous, though brief, telling him she had nothing to say, because her father died when she was two.
It was the last time she was ever that polite, because once the “gentlemen of the press” had found her, her life quickly became a nightmare of letters and telephone calls—and worse: visits from bizarre individuals who claimed they were followers, and in one horrible instance, the
reincarnation
—of Thorne Blackburn.
And every Halloween since she was eighteen Truth had suffered through the various calls from a particular breed of grave-robbing yellow journalist who wanted an interview with the daughter of the notorious “Satanist” Thorne Blackburn to spice up a story.
The requests from the literary lunatic fringe to write about Thorne Blackburn had fortunately diminished over the years, although they'd never quite stopped. She might even have been willing to write a book—publish or perish, after all, even for those who weren't academics on the tenure track—except that the publishers all made it very clear that they were not looking for accuracy, rather for a credulous panegyric they could pass off as gospel to their equally addled readers.
And Katherine Jourdemayne's daughter was damned if she was going to gild the reputation of a fake, a fraud, an Aquarian Age snake-oil salesman. Why couldn't all those people see what a huckster Blackburn had really been?
It was, Truth supposed, part of the reason she'd gone into parapsychology: find a way to debunk the frauds before they could hurt anyone. But sometimes she was so ashamed.
Why couldn't I be the daughter of Elvis instead?
Truth thought forlornly.
Life would be easier.
She ran a hand through her hair, still trembling with repressed emotion. Why couldn't they all realize that the only thing she wanted was never to have to think about Thorne Blackburn ever again? He haunted her life like the ghost at the feast, poised to drag her into his lunatic world of unreason.
“Hello? Anyone home? Ah, my esteemed colleague, Miss Jourdemayne.” Without giving her a chance to pretend she wasn't there at all, Dylan Palmer slid in to Truth's office and closed the door.
Dylan Palmer—Dr. Palmer—
was
a tenure-track academic, a member of the teaching faculty at Taghkanic as
well as a fellow of the Institute. He was a professor in the Indiana Jones mold, being tall, blond, handsome, easygoing, and occasionally heroic. Dylan's particular parapsychological interest was personality transfers and survivals—in more mundane parlance, hauntings.
“How's my favorite number-cruncher today?” he asked cheerfully.
Dylan leaned over her desk, looking more like one of the students than one of the teachers in his flannel shirt and baggy jeans. The small gold ring in his ear winked in the light.
“How was your summer project?” Truth asked.
She could feel herself withdrawing, and knew that Dylan could see it too, but Truth found his zest for life as daunting as it was exhilarating.
“Wonderful!” If Dylan was hurt by her coolness he didn't show it. “Twelve weeks in the draftiest Irish castle you ever saw—just me, three grad students, and seventy-five thousand dollars of cameras, microphones, and sensors. Oh, and the IRA.”
“What?”
“Just kidding. I think that's who the locals thought we were, though—they did everything but cross themselves when we'd come into town to buy supplies.” He straightened up, looking pleased with himself.
“That's just the sort of thing
you'd
think was funny.” Truth said. “This isn't a game, Dylan—psychic investigation is a serious business, even if
you
treat it lightly.” She heard the condescension in her voice and winced inwardly, hoping Dylan would go away before she embarrassed herself further.
“Ah, Halloween coming early this year?” Dylan asked lightly.
Truth stared at him blank-faced.
“I couldn't help but notice,” Dylan said, looking downward ostentatiously. “Thorne Blackburn time again, is it?”
Truth followed the direction of his gaze, and saw a
small snowstorm of torn paper around her feet. Dylan bent down gracefully and retrieved a scrap. Truth snatched at it, but to no avail. Dylan brandished it theatrically and began to declaim.
“When the frost is on the pumpkin, and Blackburn time is near/Then the ghoulies and the goblins, do jump about in fear/For Truth—”
“It isn't funny!”
Truth cried furiously. She jumped to her feet and snatched the scrap of Rouncival's letter out of Dylan's hand. “Do you think I
enjoy
being reminded that Thorne Blackburn is my father? Do you think it makes me
happy?

“Well it could be worse; he could still be among us. As it is, he's strictly my department. Lighten up, Truth—it isn't like Thorne's Jack the Ripper or anything. Professor MacLaren thinks he's a pretty interesting figure, actually, worth studying. Maybe you ought to consider—”
Truth felt unreasonably betrayed. Although most of the people at the Institute knew she was Thorne Blackburn's daughter—his
bastard
daughter, in fact—anyone she knew at all well knew better than to bring it up. Certainly Dylan did. Or should.
“Well, I don't have your sainted Professor MacLaren's tolerance for cheats and monsters!” she interrupted hotly. “Maybe
you
ought to consider people's feelings before marching in with your fund of good advice!”
Dylan's easy smile faded as he studied her face. “I didn't mean …” he began.
“You never mean anything!” Truth shot back viciously, conscious only of a desire to strike back at someone, anyone. “You're just some kind of freelance superhero, playing ghost-breaker and not caring what you do so long as it gives you a dramatic exit line and a cheap laugh. Well, I'm not laughing.” She closed her hands into painful fists, willing herself not to cry.
“You're going to get awfully lonely up there on your pedestal,” Dylan said softly. Before she could think of
another thing to say he was gone, closing the door quietly behind him.
He killed my mother, he killed my mother, he killed my mother—
Truth sat at her desk, her eyes tightly shut against the tears she would not permit—because they were useless, because they were childish, because they would change nothing at all. Why didn't anyone understand what Thorne had done to her? He'd taken everything,
everything … .
She hadn't expected Dylan of all people to take Thorne's part. She
should
have, Truth told herself. He was obviously another Thorne fan—and why not? They were two of a kind.
But even as upset as she was, Truth knew that wasn't fair. Dylan was just … too happy, Truth finished lamely. Dylan Palmer did not seem to ever have internalized the knowledge that life was a horrible business filled with nasty surprises, in which the best you could hope for was not to be hurt too badly.
But how could he possibly take Thorne Blackburn at face value? The man—Thorne—was a self-confessed fraud!
Truth managed a grimace of wry humor; honestly, sometimes psychic researchers were the most gullible people on earth. Every event was genuine until proven otherwise; from crop circles to Uri Geller, people like Dylan approached them with boundless credulity.
She drew a quavering breath, slowly regaining her self-control. It was just as well they did, she supposed, or else the disenchantment of discovering only fakes and coincidences year after year might be too hard to bear. She shook her head. Dylan had been a little out of line, but his bad manners hadn't warranted the response he'd gotten from her. She'd have to apologize.
I need a vacation.
As her mind formed the words, Truth realized how tired she was. She'd spent the summer
shepherding her project through to completion on top of her regular workload—why shouldn't she get away from Taghkanic while the first rush of fall term was going on? She could come back when it was quiet—well, as quiet as it ever got, anyway.
The phone rang.
Truth stared at it with guilty fascination. It was probably Dylan, phoning from his office to finish telling her off. But when she looked down at the phone, she realized that it was one of the outside lines that was ringing. She picked up the phone.
“Hello?”
“Truth?”
“Aunt Caroline?”
Truth felt a sluggish pulse of alarm. Caroline Jourdemayne was a very self-contained person, and the two of them weren't really close. What could have happened that made Aunt Caroline feel she needed to call? “Is there anything wrong?” Truth asked.
“You might say that,” the familiar, dryly unemotional voice said. “I'm sorry to bother you at work, Truth, but you're going to have to come home as soon as possible.”
Home was the small house situated in the wilds of northern Amsterdam Country over seventy miles away, where Truth's childhood had been spent and where her memories really began.
“Come home?” Truth echoed, baffled.
Aunt Caroline was not an outgoing woman; since Truth had gotten her apartment here on the Taghkanic campus, visits to Aunt Caroline had been infrequent—usually occurring around Thanksgiving, since in December the roads near the cottage were treacherous except for vehicles equipped with four-wheel drive.
“I trust you still remember where it is?” Aunt Caroline said.
“Oh, yes, of course. But—”
“How soon can you come?” Aunt Caroline asked.
Truth frowned, juggling schedules in her mind. Fortunately she didn't have any teaching commitments to consider. She was supposed to spend a certain amount of time in the lab assisting the teaching researchers with their projects, but this early in the academic year there wasn't much of that; she could easily find someone to cover for her.
“Tomorrow,” Truth said. “I'll be there tomorrow. Aunt Caroline, can't you tell me what this is about?” She could think of no secret so lurid that it could not be mentioned over the phone, and the Jourdemaynes were not a family for lurid secrets—at least, not what was left of the Jourdemaynes.
She glanced idly up at the clock on the wall as Aunt Caroline began to explain the reason for the call, and as the distant voice continued Truth's gaze became fixed and staring, and eventually the shocked irrelevant tears began to spill down her face as Aunt Caroline continued to speak.
THE TRUTH OF THE MATTER
This is truth the poet sings,
That a sorrow's crown of sorrow is
remembering happier things.
—ALFRED, LORD TENNYSON
 
 
 
IN CONTRAST TO THE BRIGHT CLEAR PROMISE OF Monday, Tuesday was dark and unseasonably humid. Early that morning Truth was on the Thruway heading north to Stormlakken. There was no direct route to the town; it was a several hour drive, even under optimal conditions. She should get there a little after noon.
It was only after she was already on the road that Truth realized she hadn't smoothed over the scene she'd had with Dylan the day before. She'd been too busy arranging for her absence, and then she'd felt obligated to do some work on the project, and had let the soothing ranks of statistics drive everything else out of her mind. She knew that the longer it was before she made her apology the harder it would be, but after Aunt Caroline's news she had not wanted to risk another encounter that might open her emotional floodgates. She would not use Aunt Caroline as an excuse when she finally spoke to him, though. She would simply apologize. The Jourdemaynes were a
private people, not given to explanation. Or displays of emotion.
Why don't I feel anything?
The almost commonplace beauty of the Hudson River Valley—dramatic vistas that had inspired Frederick Church and a whole school of American landscape painters—rolled by outside the car's windows, unappreciated. Dylan was fond of quoting some bit of Coleridge about a savage place, holy and enchanted. Truth had always thought that was overdramatic and fanciful—like Dylan?—but the fact was that the terrain was spectacular enough to have coaxed poetry from the souls of its phlegmatic Dutch inhabitants when they had first settled here over 300 years before. This was Sleepy Hollow Country, home and birthplace to tales of Headless Horsemen and Rip Van Winkles, bowling giants and fiddling gnomes and ghostly galleons roving the Hudson.
Truth surprised herself in the midst of this prosaic revery and found her mind engaged as if she were composing a lecture for some unknown audience, marshaling her facts. Facts had always been her way of keeping the painful world at bay. Keeping her feelings at bay.
But I don't feel anything. And I should.
Caroline Jourdemayne had been Truth's entire family from the time Truth was orphaned at the age of two. Aunt Caroline had come to Blackburn's sordid commune and taken her sister's child away, caring for Truth without a word of reproach or complaint at what must have been the fearful disarrangement of an ordered spinster life. But despite the fact that Caroline and Katherine had been identical twins, Truth had never felt the warmth for her Aunt Caroline that she assumed she would have felt for her own mother.
There was no enmity between Truth and Aunt Caroline, of course, only a rather distant and dutiful affection on Truth's part, and a scrupulous courtesy on Aunt Caroline's.
If either woman thought the relationship odd, it was not something they discussed—and as Truth had grown up and away and heard the tales of her classmates' and roommates' families, she became more grateful for the careful remoteness that Aunt Caroline had preserved. If Aunt Caroline had shared her grief about her sister's murder Truth did not think she could have borne it.
But she must have felt something. Twins, especially identical twins, are supposed to be very close; the Linebaugh-Hay telepathy experiments prove
—Truth broke off her train of thought, a little surprised at the clinical direction it had taken. Of course Aunt Caroline missed her sister, Katherine, just as Truth missed her mother. But there had been no one left to blame once Thorne Blackburn had vanished.
Blackburn. It always came back to him—Fortune's golden child, a man of mysterious origins who made his mark as a mountebank of mountebanks, who told everybody outrageous stories and then told them he was lying to them, a man who urged belief on his acolytes while professing no beliefs himself. A man who made promises that no man could possibly keep—but then Thorne Blackburn had never meant to keep any of his promises.
Thorne Blackburn was a spiritual con man who stole belief instead of money, and then stole the money too.
Truth jammed on her brakes, glancing guiltily into the rearview mirror at the same moment she yanked the wheel to the right. Fortunately there was no one behind her; she'd nearly missed her exit. She turned off the Thruway, and onto the patched and rutted secondary road that led toward Stormlakken. Only a little farther now.
What could she do? What could she say?
There was nothing she
could
do—Aunt Caroline had been very clear on that point. And it was Aunt Caroline who had things to say, things she did not wish to go into over the phone.
The secondary road gave way to one that was barely a lane and a half wide. Now Truth was in the foothills of the Taconic Range, and the choppy, glacier-carved terrain was a study in tall grass and scraggly bushes, scrub pine and an occasional stand of birch.
She stopped in downtown Stormlakken to get gas; it was still the same place it had been twenty years ago, and ten, and five, though the five-and-dime was boarded up now and all that was left on Main Street was a bus shelter, an auto-parts store, a branch of the Mid-Hudson Bank, and a fly-blown lunch counter. The rococo Victorian department store across from the gas station stood empty, as it had for as long as Truth could remember.
A dying town; a suitable counterpart to the bleak September day. Truth was glad to go on, heading up Main Street toward the lake. Or toward what locals called the lake, although there had been no lake there for nearly three-quarters of a century.
A local water project in the early twenties—part of a plan to supply drinking water to New York City, outmoded when the Croton Reservoir was built—had drained the lake that had given the town its name and destroyed Stormlakken's tenuous claim to being a vacation spot. When the Thruway had gone in, the last of the vitality had drained from the town, until today it was nearly a ghost town, too far south of the tristate burgeoning of Schenectady/Albany/Troy and too far north of Poughkeepsie to be included in either area's urban sprawl.
Caroline Jourdemayne's house was a few miles outside of town, on the shore of what had once been the lake. Most of the tidy Victorian cottages that had been built upon the lake shore were long since torn down; Aunt Caroline's little house sat in isolated splendor on the sparsely wooded hillside looking out over the lush meadow that was the former lake bed.
Truth pulled up and parked beside Aunt Caroline's old Honda. She got out of the car. A wet dank wind was blowing across the ridge, irritating without being either cold or hot. She shrugged her purse up onto her shoulder and trudged up the steps to the house.
It took Aunt Caroline a long time to come to the door, and when she did, Truth was horrified at the changes that had already taken place in her. The black hair was limp and gray streaked, the skin pouched and yellowish, the woman herself suddenly, hideously,
old
.
“Yes,” Aunt Caroline said. The skull beneath the skin grinned out, blatantly visible. “I look terrible, don't I? The doctor has given me less than a month—and it was all I could do to twist that prediction out of him. They don't like giving out facts, doctors don't.”
“But when—but how?” Truth stammered. Caroline Jourdemayne turned away, walking as if her bones were made of glass. Truth followed her inside and closed the door.
The living room had the faintly out-of-touch feeling of something outside of time; the furniture was what Aunt Caroline had purchased when she was a young woman thirty years before—sleek Danish Modern bookcases and tables and chairs with cushions in olive and orange and rust, a slice of the futuristic sixties carried forward through time intact as a fly in amber.
“Cancer strikes in the best of families, I believe,” Aunt Caroline said. She sat down gingerly on the sofa, wincing with the exertion. “You're looking well. How is the Institute?”
“Oh, well enough,” Truth said, not wanting to talk about work. She set down her purse and jacket on the low tile-topped cocktail table next to a nondescript cardboard box of the sort used for storing personal papers.
“Can I get you anything from the kitchen?” Truth asked.
“No, but do make yourself some lunch. I imagine you haven't been eating again—as usual.”
 
“Poor Dr. Vandemeyer is terribly embarrassed,” Aunt Caroline said as Truth returned with her sandwich and tea, “but by the time I went to see him it was too late.”
Truth sat down opposite her aunt on a low-slung chair and set down her teacup carefully. Now that the first shock had passed, she felt more able to deal with this sudden catastrophe. There had never been much money in the Jourdemayne family, although there was more than none; Caroline Jourdemayne, the sensible twin, had worked as a librarian for many years at the Association Library in nearby Rock Creek, but it was Grandmother Jennet's legacy that had made affordable the house and the car.
“What can I do?” Truth said simply.
“I shall stay here as long as I can. A nurse will drive down from the HMO three times a week to look in on me, but I am told that fairly soon I shall have to have someone here all the time.”
“Do you want—” Truth began hesitantly.
Aunt Caroline smiled, the skin stretching tight over sharp bones. “I shall engage a professional nurse, of course. I have spoken to Mr. Branwell at the realty agency and he feels he can sell the house very quickly once—once it becomes available; the proceeds from that should more than settle the debts of my estate. What is left comes to you, of course, though I'm afraid there won't be much.”
Truth shook her head slowly, trying to dispel the brisk, clinical efficiency with which Aunt Caroline tidied away her life. “I don't care about that,” she said.
“No. I don't imagine you do,” Aunt Caroline said, studying her closely. “But since you are to be my executor—and that soon—perhaps we could go over a few things now.”
Truth felt the numb sense of impending doom that one feels in nightmares as Aunt Caroline went over the will and the other arrangements with her. Caroline Jourdemayne would be buried in the Amsterdam Rural Cemetery next to her twin. The coffin had already been purchased and the arrangements for the memorial service made with the local funeral home. Everything was ready.
All Caroline Jourdemayne had to do now was die.
“—but we could have handled all these matters by phone,” Aunt Caroline went on inexorably. “There's something else.”
For the first time Aunt Caroline's iron will seemed to falter. “Please—if you'd get me a glass of water—my pills …”
Truth fled to the kitchen for a glass of water, returning with it and the bottle of painkillers stickered all over with advisories: MAY CAUSE DROWSINESS—CONTROLLED SUBSTANCE—DO NOT OPERATE HEAVY MACHINERY WHILE TAKING THIS PRESCRIPTION. Seeing Aunt Caroline struggle with the cap, Truth opened it for her, and Aunt Caroline swallowed two of the pills. Truth frowned. She was certain the dosage was supposed to be one.
It must be very bad already. And there was nothing she could do—no way to reach out to Caroline Jourdemayne. Truth felt a sudden panicky realization that there was no time left to forge close emotional ties to her aunt. Caroline would die and Truth would be left with the guilt of selfishness.
“There. I shall be better presently, so Dr. Vandemeyer has been at pains to assure me. Now. There is another matter that we must discuss. The real reason you're here.”
Truth waited, but Aunt Caroline said nothing more. Truth let her gaze drift toward the window to the stark, Andrew Wyeth–esque landscape beyond. The sky was a palette of gray on gray that seemed to cocoon the house like wet spongy flesh.
“We never did discuss … the past,” Aunt Caroline said at last. “It's important for you to know that you're not the only one.”
The only one?
Truth stared at her aunt, feeling a faint alarm tinged with uncomfortable pity. What Caroline Jourdemayne had said made no sense. “I guess—” Truth began.
“I'm not quite senile yet—or drugged senseless,” Aunt Caroline snapped, as if she could read Truth's mind. “But this is hard for me. For so many years I just tried to blot it all out—Thorne, and Katherine—but there are things you need to know about your family.”
“My family,” Truth echoed. But Aunt Caroline was her only family, and Truth found it hard to imagine anything she needed to know about Aunt Caroline.
“Your parents. Your father and mother. Thorne Blackburn most of all. You never had the chance to know him, and now …”
Blackburn again! Truth struggled to keep her face serene. “I don't think there's anything you really need to tell me about Thorne Blackburn, Aunt Caroline,” Truth said carefully.
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