Authors: Scott Nicholson
Tags: #Science fiction, #General, #Fiction, #Horror, #Horror - General, #Fiction - Horror
He cursed under his breath and rolled a fresh sheet of paper into the typewriter. The paper was heavy, a twenty percent cotton mix. Worthy paper. The words would come. They had to come. He commanded them to come.
Spence stared into the face of Korban. "What should I write, sir?"
The portrait stared back, its eyes oil-black.
Spence's fingers hit the keys, the clattering motion vi-brated through the desk and echoed off the wooden floor, the carriage return's bell rang every thirty seconds.
The house sat amid the breasts of hills, among swells, above rivers, above all Earth, reaching
where only the gods could dwell. And in the house, in the high lonely window from which he could
see the world that would be his, the man smiled.
They had come, they had answered his call, those who would give him life. They would sing his
songs, they would carve his name into their hearts, they would paint him into the sky. They came
with their po-etries, their images, their fevered words, their dreams. They came bearing gifts, and
he would give unto them likewise
Spence was so lost in his writing, lost as he had not been in years, that he didn't notice when Bridget walked nude and steaming into the room. He worked feverishly, his tongue pressed against his teeth. The gift was returning, flowing like blood through forgotten veins. He didn't know whom to thank, Bridget, Korban, or some unseen Muse.
He'd worry about that later. For now, the words car-ried Spence beyond himself.
Anna looked down at her plate. The prime rib oozed juices and steam, and ordinarily would have been tempt-ing enough to chalenge her vegetarian principles. The softly boiled broccoli sprouts and red potatoes had eli-cited several exploratory stabs of her fork. The apple pie's crust was so tender it flaked all over the china plate. As she watched the sugary lava of the pie filling flow between the crumbs, she wondered what it would be like to worry about dieting. She glanced across the dining room at Jefferson Spence and saw no hesitation in that man's fork. She took a few hasty mouthfuls of the vegetables, then pushed the food around a little so it would look as if she had eaten wel. The way Miss Mamie fussed over dinner proceedings, Anna almost felt guilty about not appreciating the food.
The dining room was a long hall just off the main foyer. The room contained four tables, a long one in the center occupied by the people that Anna secretly thought of as "the uberculture." The other, smaler ta-bles were relegated to the corners. Apparently Miss Mamie had tried to match people of similar interests when she made out the seating charts. That meant putting all the below-fifties at the smaller tables. Anna was sitting with Cris and the dark-skinned wo-man whom Anna had seen carrying a camera earlier. To her left was the guy she'd talked to on the porch, the sullen sculptor. Though his face was plain, something about his green-brown eyes kept drawing her attention. A secret fire buried deep. Or maybe it was only the reflection of the two candles that burned in the center of the table. Or an il-lusion created by her own desperate solitude.
Cris had mumbled a prayer before dinner. The dark-skinned woman had also bowed her head. Anna wasn't compelled to join in their ritual and instead took the opportunity to study their faces. The sculptor had kept his head down but his eyes open. Then Anna had seen what he was looking at: a fly circled the edge of his plate, dipping a tentative feeler into the brown gravy.
She'd hidden her smile as he surreptitiously tried to blow it away. When Cris said, "Amen," he quickly whisked his cloth napkin out of his lap and waved it with a flourish. The fly headed toward the oil lamps that burned in the chandeliers overhead. Anna watched its flight, and when she turned her attention back to dinner, the sculptor was looking at her.
"Darned thing was about to carry off my dinner," he said. "Evil creature."
"Maybe it was Beelzebub," she said. "Lord of the flies."
"Beelzebubba's more like it. It's a southern fly."
Anna laughed for the first time in weeks. Her table-mates looked at them with furrowed brows. The man introduced himself to them as Mason and said he was a retired textile worker from the foothills. "I'm also an aspiring sculptor," he said. "But don't confuse me with Henry Moore or anything."
"Didn't he play James Bond?" Cris asked.
"No, that was
He politely waved off the wine when the maid, Lilith, brought the carafe around. Anna took a glass herself, though she had no intention of taking more than a few sips. The conservatism that came with a death sentence had surprised her. When you only have a litle time left, you try to heighten your experience, not dul it. Her eyes wandered to Mason again. He was watch-ing Lilith as if he was interested in more than just a sec-ond helping of hot rols. She was both annoyed and surprised when a flare of jealousy raced across her heart. She despised pettiness and, besides, possessiveness was the last vice a dying person should suffer. Stephen had taught her that you could never understand another per-son, much less own one, and the idea of soul mates was best limited to romance novels. She took a gulp of wine and let the mild sting of alcohol distract her, then intro-duced herself to the dark-skinned woman. The woman was named Zainab and had been born in Saudi Arabia. She was Arabian-American, but only indirectly from oil money; her father had been an engi-neer at Aramco. Zainab came to the U.S. to attend Stan-ford, back before everyone from the Middle East had to jump through flaming hoops to immigrate here, and now wanted to be a photographer "when she grew up."
"In America, you get to be grown up when you're fourteen," Anna said. "At least if you believe the fash-ion magazines. Of course, when you reach forty, you're expected to look twenty-five."
"Hey," Cris said, polishing off her third glass of wine. "I'm thirty going on twenty-nine. Guess that means I'm headed in the right direction."
Anna chopped at her pie a little more, then pushed the dessert plate away. Cris leaned toward Mason, her eyelashes doing some serious flutering.
"So, what do the guys in the foothills do for fun?" Cris asked.
"We go down to the Dumpsters behind the local café and throw rocks at the rats. The rats in Sawyer Creek eat better than the welfare families."
"I bet the rats live well around here," Cris said.
Not a smooth move,
Talk of rodents does not a bedmate beckon.
"We call it 'living high on the hog' back home," Mason said, shuddering in mock revulsion. "I was talk-ing to one of the handymen today. He told me about set-ting out steel traps, and burying the food scraps to keep the rats down. Garbage disposal is a big chore here."
"It's amazing the things we take for granted in a civ-ilized society," Anna said.
"Who's civilized?" Cris said, giggling. "Sounds like we're heading for one of those 'walked four miles through the snow to get to school' stories."
"It was 'four kilometers over sand dunes without a camel' where I grew up," said Zainab.
"I saw one of the maids with a basket of laundry. Not
Anna said, frowning toward Lilith, who was uncorking a wine bottle at the main table. "Imagine what it must be like to hand-wash all these table linens and curtains, not to mention the sheets."
"Seems the sheets get a good workout around here, if you believe the rumors," Cris said.
"You mean the ghost stories?" Mason said.
Anna's breath caught in her throat. If she managed to contact any ghosts here, she didn't want a bunch of would-be necromancers holding midnight seances and playing with Ouija boards. She believed those sorts of disrespectful games sent ghosts running for the safety of the grave. And if she had a mission here, a last bit of business before her soul could rest, she preferred to handle it undistracted.
"I was talking about sex, but the ghost stories are in-teresting, too," Cris said. Her sibilants were starting to get a little mushy.
Anna said to herself.
A man who's an arrogant, tee-totaling prude probably doesn't
want to swap tongues with someone whose mouth smells like a barroom.
She knew she was being catty. The last entangle-ment had cured her of desire. And she definitely had no romantic interest in the sculptor. Even if he did have strong hands, thick, wavy hair, those dreaming-awake eyes. Maybe what she had taken for sullenness was ac-tually insecurity. A shyness and hesitancy that was re-freshing compared to Stephen's self-righteousness, and—
Stop it right there, girl. Find something NOT to like about him.
He chews with his mouth open and he has pie crumbs sticking to his chin.
Mason said, "According to William Roth—"
him." Zainab's brown eyes lit up as she interrupted. "I actually got to talk to him. I've always admired his work, but he's not at all like you'd think a famous person would be. He's so down-to-earth. And he has the most wonderful accent."
"He's quite a character, all right."
"I think William is charming," Zainab said, looking at him seated at the main table where he seemed to be engaged in three conversations at once.
"What were you saying about ghosts?" Cris said, as if she'd just realized the subject had jumped track.
"Anna does that stuff—"
Anna cut her off with a look and a subtle shake of her head. She didn't want everyone to think she was a flake, at least not right away.
"Roth says Korban Manor is haunted, and he's going to try to take some pictures," Mason said. "And the handyman I met today sure seems a little spooked."
"Has anything weird happened to you guys since we got here?" Zainab asked. Mason frowned. "I don't know about ghosts. I'll believe them when I see them, I suppose. But old geezer Korban's pictures all over the place sure give me the creeps." He nodded to the portrait on the wall above the head of the main table.
"A big old place like this," Anna said, "you always have creaky boards and sudden drafts blowing from everywhere. And al these lamps and candles throw a bunch of flickering shadows. It's no wonder stories make the rounds."
"Sure," Mason said. "If there realy
ghosts, do you think all these people would keep coming back year after year?"
"And how could they keep any employees?" Anna said.
"Wel, I wouldn't mind seeing a ghost or two," Cris said, her cheeks bright. "Might liven the place up a bit. I like things that go bump in the night." Cris smiled at Mason in lewd punctuation.
Anna watched his reaction.
This is it. Right over the heart of the plate. Strike three, or the long ball.
Mason shrugged, seemingly oblivious to Cris's come-on. "I don't know. I'll believe it when I see it." A small, cheap glow of victory burned in Anna's chest. Then she despised herself for the feeling. What business was it of hers if Cris hooked up with this country boy? After Stephen, men didn't exist, anyway. Ghosts were far more solid and reliable than men were.
The conversation was broken when Miss Mamie rose from her seat at the head of the main table. She tapped her wineglass with a spoon, and the clatter of dishes and small talk died to a whisper. Lilith and the other maid stood at atention near the foyer, each hold-ing a silver pitcher.
"Ladies and gentlemen, lovely guests," Miss Mamie said, her voice filling the hall. She looked at the faces lining the main table, clearly enjoying the moment. "Friends."
Anna was already bored. She hoped the speech would be short. Miss Mamie drew in a breath as if she were a soprano about to leap into an aria.
"I'd like to welcome all of you to Korban Manor," Miss Mamie said. "As most of you know, this house was built in 1902 by my grandfather, Ephram Korban. After he passed on, God rest his soul, it came into my father's hands. We turned the manor into an artists' re-treat to fulfill Ephram's final request. Now it's my duty to carry on the legacy, and I do that with great pride and joy."
"And profit," cut in a British accent, and an uncer-tain laughter rippled across the room. Miss Mamie smiled. "That, too, Mr. Roth. But it's more than just a way to fund the estate's preservation. It's a labor of love, a continuation of Ephram's vision. He himself was an admirer of the arts. And I hope each of you finds fulfillment during your stay here, and in so doing, you'll help keep Ephram's dreams alive in your own way."
Anna sneaked a glance at Mason. He was staring at Miss Mamie with blatant curiosity.
Hmmm. Maybe he's not as handsome as I first thought. His nose is a little long in profile. And his
fin-gers are too thick. I'll bet he's clumsy with women.
Satisfied that she had found enough flaws, she sipped her wine. Miss Mamie was in the middle of stoking the collective artistic fires.
"—so I propose a toast, my friends," the hostess said, twiddling her pearls. She raised her wineglass to-ward the vaulted ceiling, then turned and tipped it to-ward the portrait of Korban. Most of the room joined her. Anna reached for her glass again, then changed her mind. Mason saw her and smirked.
Asshole. Probably one of those "holier than thou " types. An artist with a superiority complex.
Now, THERE'S a rarity.
She grabbed her glass. When Miss Mamie drank, Anna took a large gulp. It was house-bottled musca-dine, a little too sweet for swilling. But she took an extra swallow for good measure.
"You're welcome to join me in the study for after-dinner drinks and conversation," Miss Mamie concluded. "There's a smoking porch off the study as wel. Again, thank you for alowing us the pleasure of your company. Good evening."