Authors: Scott Nicholson
Tags: #Science fiction, #General, #Fiction, #Horror, #Horror - General, #Fiction - Horror
"That can be arranged, Mr. Roth."
"Cal me Wiliam, love."
She imitated his imitation accent. "Okay, William Love."
Had a sense of humor, too. She'd be a joy to tumble. Roth moved toward her, wanting to get close enough for her to marvel at the sparkle in his smoky eyes. Something crawled across his face and he brushed it away.
God save the bloody queen, it was a
He stepped back and saw the web spun between him and Lilith, stretching across the bridge like golden wire, the dew catching the sunrise. He detested spiders. From the African veldt to the Arctic tundra, the little buggers jumped at you with their sharp pincers. He'd read somewhere that, no matter where you stood on the globe, there'd be a spider within six feet of you, and he believed it.
He looked down at the rough planks of the bridge. The yellow-striped bastard was making for a crack, its legs scrabbling, its arachnid brain no doubt having a laugh at Roth's expense. Roth brought a boot down on the spider, grinding it into the grain of the wood, send-ing its soul to spider hell, where hopefully God fed them nothing but DDT.
"Sorry, love," he said to Lilith. "Hope that didn't upset you." The smile flitted across the thin lips, fast as insects. "You didn't kill it. You delivered it."
"Living things never die, they just move on through deeper tunnels of the soul."
"Er, righty right."
"Now, if you'll excuse me, Miss Mamie will be wondering where I've gotten off to. I can't stay away from the house for long."
She walked past him, and he took a whiff of her fra-grance. He liked that sort of thing, collected their scents the way some blokes collected phone numbers or underwear. This one smelled a bit like earth, ripe and lush. Fertile and moist. He could dig it, all right.
She stopped at the end of the bridge. "I'll see you later, then."
"Wouldn't miss it for the life of me," he said, and watched her delightful smal arse shake as she walked up the sandy road leading to the manor. When she disappeared through the trees, he turned his attention back to the view. The ridges had lost their glow now that the sun was rising. He'd best pack away. The ravens watched as he returned his lens to its case. Bloody birds had no fear. He thought about wav-ing them on, sending them scattering over the valley. Oh, bother that. The day was looking up, with fair and tender Lilith on the agenda.
He was about to head back for the manor and break-fast when he saw the web again. Still spread out in those fine and sinister patterns, shipshape. Lilith had walked right through it. And still it hung there, whole and perfect, waiting to snatch things from the air.
This place was going to drive him daft if he wasn't careful.
Mason hewed the flesh of the oak, excited by the tannic smel of the wood. He worked with his hatchet, scraping it around as if skinning an animal. The log was braced with a couple of old chestnut boards, a pain in the rump to work around, but art was never easy. With the wires adding support, the oak waited for his touch like a masochistic and naked lover in a torture chamber.
The reddish strips of peeled bark were piled around his feet, and he stumbled in them as he felt along the wood's smooth surface. Here would be the arms, one knee here, a strong spread of shoulder there. This knot could become the ball of one loose fist.
He hadn't lied to Miss Mamie. The statue would be worth the trouble. Nothing great was ever created with-out a little risk. Suffer for art, that was the ticket to the top. Sacrifice everything and everyone, especialy your-self. Mason drove the hatchet sideways, into the area that would be the neck. He drew back and struck again and again, the outline of the form burned into his mind, his hands sure of their work. He chopped until his right shoulder and biceps ached, removing the sections of dead wood that blocked the emergence of the true shape. The flames at the end of the candles bobbed as the air stirred with his blows and breath. When he could no longer lift his arm, Mason stood back and pushed away the wood scraps with his shoe. He moved across the studio space and studied the log from different angles. The height of the shoulders, the angle of the elbow, the distance between the feet, all had to be perfectly measured. As he was taking a step back to get another view, he knocked over the oil paint-ing that he'd leaned against the cupboard. He knelt and picked it up. Again he was struck by its singular beauty. How would he feel if his own work never left the basement, if it stayed forever in the shad-ows, never to be appreciated and admired? His work would be better than this, but the painter had talent. The soft brushstrokes and colors, the off-white of the manor, the splendor of the night forest, the turbulent storm clouds as fresh as wet reality. He looked closer, at the top of the house. The smudge along the widow's walk was brighter now and had spread several inches across the canvas. Mason peered into the mist and blinked. There were angles and shapes in the smudge. He brought the lantern from the table and tilted it toward the painting. Mason traced a finger over one of the shapes. The shape was a deeper gray white than the smudge, sug-gesting a human shape. More forms hovered beyond it, behind the thick pale line that portrayed the rail of the widow's walk. People?
People would be out of place in the painting. The house was the subject, so dominating an image in itself that to besmirch it with humanity would be a cruel in-sult. Had somebody else made the same observation as Mason, and tried to blot out those shapes on the roof? Or did the artist realize the mistake upon completion, and sought to correct it before the oils had dried?
Miss Mamie would know, or maybe Lilith, who'd shown an interest in the painting. Perhaps he'd be al-lowed to take it to his room and hang it beside that por-trait of Korban. A master and his domain. He leaned the painting back against the cupboard. His own work was more important. That was the artist's first tenet. Creative duty first, everything else second.
Besides, Mama was watching.
His wood called to him in the language of the un-born. He answered, with chisel and claw, tooth and hatchet, sharp blade and hungry soul.
Adam found Miss Mamie after breakfast. She sat in a wicker chair in the study with her hands folded in her lap. She was dressed in forest green today, her decol-lette gown showing the pale expanse of her upper bosom. She had foregone her pearl necklace in favor of a black silk choker.
She lifted her hands, revealing some smal pieces of wood spread across a cloth. She had a knife in one hand, bits of wood clinging to the blade. As Adam watched, she sliced a length of thick vine and began wrapping it around what looked like the torso of a doll. The doll's head looked like a knob of dark, shriveled fruit, the fea-tures stretched and distorted from the act of drying.
The Abramovs were at the far end of the study, away from the fireplace and the sunlight that poured through the high windows. They were playing a minuet in
that was reminiscent of Mozart. Their cello and violin trilled in counterpoint, then shifted into a de-scending harmony. The rich notes vibrated against Adam's skin. He sat on the sofa across from Miss Mamie and bowed his head in respectful silence. He watched the musicians' fingers glide over the strings. The duo in-creased their tempo, then went into the recapitulation, toying with the melody before finally sustaining the tonic and fifth notes as a finale. Adam joined Miss Mamie in applause.
"Bravo," she said. "How extraordinarily lovely. Eph-ram Korban would be pleased." As the Abramovs started a new piece, Adam leaned over to Miss Mamie. "How are you today?"
"Just fine, Mr. Andrews. How do you like my litle hobby? An old Appalachian craft, passed down by Ephram himself. They say when you whitle a poppet, you're building a house for a lost soul."
"Looks tough on the hands."
"But they make lovely gifts. What do you think of this one?"
She held up the gnarled figurine, the twisted limbs of vine making the poor thing look crippled. It was hideous, the eyes crude, one larger than the other.
"That's wonderful. I don't think Daniel Boone could have done any better."
"Are you enjoying your stay so far?"
"Actualy, I wanted to talk to you about that. I've de-cided to cut my visit short. I have, um, pressing busi-ness to take care of."
Miss Mamie's brow darkened and she pursed her lips. She dropped the little wooden figure and it clat-tered off the hearth, the shriveled head rolling away. "Oh, dear, what a great fall," she said, so softly that Adam barely heard her.
Adam held up a hand. "I'm not looking for my money back. My roommate Paul wil be staying on." Miss Mamie looked out the window. A cloud must have passed over the sun, because the room grew darker. The Abramov melody shifted into a minor key and began twisting in
"Nobody can leave," she said.
"I know the van doesn't come back up for another couple of weeks. I was wondering if you could possi-bly make other arrangements."
"You don't understand. Nobody can leave. Especialy you."
Mrs. Abramov's face clenched as she increased the tempo of her chaotic melody. There was little of the beauty that the couple had been squeezing out of the in-struments only minutes before. Now the notes were more like tortured wails than music.
Adam looked out the window. "Can't one of the handymen take me down on horseback? I saw two of the guests out riding the other day."
"It's not time yet," Miss Mamie said, finaly looking away from the window. Her eyes glitered with what Adam took to be anger. "The party is tonight. A lovely affair, up on the widow's walk under the ful moon. It's something of a halowed tradition at Korban Manor."
"I can pay extra for the trouble. I know what a bother this is."
Miss Mamie glowered and touched the locket that dangled unfashionably from her choker. "He—he doesn't want you to go."
Miss Mamie seemed to recover just a little. "Black Rock is a half day's journey by horse. And you belong here." The string music increased in intensity, fragmenting into chromatic chaos.
"I'll walk, then."
The music stopped abruptly, a diminished fifth quiv-ering in the air, embarrassed at its isolation.
"No one leaves," she said.
Adam followed her gaze to the portrait of Korban above the fireplace, that same face that had whispered dream words to Adam about tunnels of the soul. Adam shivered. The house itself brooded, as if the walls were weary of darkness. The air was heavy, and even the blazing fire added nothing to the room's cheer. Adam moved to the hearth and rubbed his hands, trying to drive the remnants of the nightmare from his mind. He looked down at the broken figurine. A scrap of fabric was tucked into a splintered crease in the torso. Gray cotton, like his pajamas.
"Play on," Miss Mamie said to the Abramovs.
Roth found Spence on the smoking porch, sitting in a hand-carved rocker whose legs seemed to bow out-ward from the stress.
"How goes the Shakespeare bit?" Roth asked.
The writer already had a drink, scotch, judging from its amber appearance. It was scarcely ten o'clock. Spence was certainly living up to his reputation. Roth had half suspected the writer had affected an alco-holic's indulgence that was as phony as his legendary womanizing or Roth's own accent.
"The best ever, as always," Spence said, face pale and eyes nearly pink from lack of sleep.
"You'd like to feed it to the critics with a shovel, wouldn't you, mate? I mean, they've been bloody hard on you these last few years."
Spence let out a wet sigh, his chins flexing like a grubworm. "There's only one critic I want to nail. My first one."
Roth sat in a swinging seat that was woven from thin reeds. He placed his camera case on the floor. If he worked it around right, a dissipated Spence would make a great addition to Roth's gallery of deceased celebrities. Because Spence was clearly running head-long toward some invisible cliff edge.
"Your old mum, I bet," Roth said. "They can be rather overbearing."
"My mother was a saint. The critic to whom I've al-luded is long dead. But I have hopes that a merciful God will bring me face-to-face with her in the after-life."
Roth grinned. "Yeah, what use is heaven if you can't have a go at all your old enemies?" Spence took a long swalow of scotch. "You're bor-ing me, Mr. Roth. I loathe boredom."
"Listen here, mate, I had this idea—"
"Let me guess. You have a book you want me to write and we'l split the money after I do al the work."
"Not quite that bald. I was thinking about a coffee table book on Korban. I'l take the photographs, dig up some old archival stuff, convert some of these portraits to digital files. Al you have to do is put your name on the cover and type a few pages as a foreword."
"My name isn't what it used be."
"The project's a natural. Some eccentric bloke builds himself a rural empire, then dies by mysterious means. We can even play on the ghost angle. I've no qualms about inserting some transparent orbs or fairy dust on the film."
"Speaking of fairies," Spence said. Through the porch screen, they could see a young man carrying a video camera toward the forest.
"His friend let him go off alone like that? Seemed the jealous and clingy sort." Roth had occasionally been driven to experiment when no birds were avail-able for plucking. Males were a bit too rough around the edges for his taste, but they offered an element of danger that no woman could match. Stil, if Spence were that prim about such matters, best to play it straight. He made no comment.
"Ephram Korban would have despised such de-praved moral weakness," Spence said.