Authors: Scott Nicholson
Tags: #Science fiction, #General, #Fiction, #Horror, #Horror - General, #Fiction - Horror
The room erupted in chatter and ratling silverware. Cris wobbled slightly as she stood, and she put a hand on Mason's shoulder to balance herself. Anna pretended not to notice. She was after
damn it. Ghosts didn't make a fool out of you the way men always did.
She slipped away up the stairs. The lamps along the hall threw a warm glow over the woodwork. She en-tered the dark bedroom and stood by the window, look-ing over the dark manor grounds. The sky was fading into a deep periwinkle, soon to be smothered by the blackness creeping from the east, the moon rising faint and blue in the east.
She took her flashlight from the nightstand. At least one modern convenience had been allowed, probably on the demands of the manor's insurance provider. She turned the light on and played it across the walls, half expecting to see a restless spirit, but revealing only a spiderweb crack in the plasterboard.
She sighed. Ghoulie-chasing. That was what Stephen called it.
"Leave me to do the serious investigating," he'd say. "You can play at ghoulie-chasing." A ghost lived in this house. She knew it as surely as she knew that she was dying. And she would chase it to hel if she had to, because she wanted to be right for once in her life. At least, she wanted Stephen to know she had been right. Even if it was only her own ghost she found.
She collected a sweater and put the flashlight in her pocket. A long walk alone with the night would do her good.
Rubbish and poppycock
Rubbish, poppycock, and swill.
William Roth ran through the derogatory nouns in his mind as he studied the books that lined the study walls. The books were all hardbacks, many with leather covers and gilded titles. The dust on them was proof of their dullness.
A jolly good put-on for the intelligentsia. Because the books are all poppycock and. . . claptrap.
Yes, CER-TAINLY claptrap.
Precis of the French Revolution. The Diary of Sir Wendell Swanswight. Talmud. Juris Studis.
They would make rather bully paperweights. The only thing they had going for them was that they fit the shelves perfectly. Roth sipped his scotch-and-water as he worked his way toward the small crowd that had gathered around Jefferson Spence. The great man's tremulous voice held forth on some didactic opinion or other. Spence went unchallenged by his admirers.
The Arab bird stood across the room, her ever-present camera around her neck. He mentally practiced her name, because it was difficult to fake a British accent while saying it.
He would have to teach her a few things about photographic codes of conduct. You don't blunder about like a rhino through the veldt. You stalk, you wait, you seduce your subject with infinite pa-tience and care, you lull, you caress, and then—flick, click, thank you, prick.
But he could get Zainab anytime. She was easy meat waiting to be culled from the herd. She was a crippled gazelle, and Roth was a lion. First he had bigger game to snare.
Wait a minute, bloke. Bad metaphor. You know from your time in Afrikker that a lioness does all
the hunting while the lion lies around licking his balls. But the bloody Yanks don't know that. King
of the Jungle, and that bit.
He was thinking in his Manchester accent. He had descended into Liverpudlian in the mid-nineties during that brief Beatles revival, then had gone Yorkshire in the wake of "The Full Monty." Fads came and went, and so did his accent. He occasionally slipped in a "righty-right" or "bit of the old what for," but Americans didn't notice his errors. The only time he had to be careful was when he met a real Brit.
And a fat bloody chance of that here,
he thought, smiling to himself. He had reached the edge of Spence's circle now.
"And they say there are hermeneutic elements in
Look Homeward, Angel,"
Spence said, his jowls quiver-ing for emphasis. "I submit to you that Gant is no more than a symbol for the human heart. A flimsy extended metaphor propped up by a billion adjectives. If you sent that to an editor today, she'd say, 'Wonderful, now can you make it read like Grisham?' "
The eyes of the onlookers brightened with awe. This man was a master, a snake charmer. His ego was as ample as his belly. None dared to dispute his ephemeral pronouncements.
Spence drained half of his martini before continu-ing. "The worst book of the twentieth century?
Perhaps not. That jester's crown must go to Hemingway's
A Move-able Feast.
The critics raved about the undercurrent of tension that supposedly wends through the novel. Clap-trap. It is nothing but Hemingway-in-a-bottle, quintes-sential Ernest. Too earnestly Ernest, one might say." Spence paused for the requisite laughter. It came.
Roth smiled. Spence was as great a deceiver as Roth himself. And he played the celebrity game just as successfully. Roth was constantly amazed by people's hunger for idols. Bring on your false gods. The masses needed an opiate, and that bit.
Roth worked his way to Spence's left, edging be-tween a blue-haired biddie and an old chap with a hunched back. The cute litle bird with the nice knock-ers was at Spence's side. She hadn't spoken a word all evening, even during dinner. Roth knew, because he had watched her and Spence at their private table. Roth calculated the chances of working her for a bit of the old in-out. That would be a dandy feather in the cap. Spence blathered on about the moral instructions encodified in
The Great Gatsby.
The crowd nodded in approval, and occasionaly dared to murmur. Roth fig-ured the time was right to make his presence known. "I say, Mr. Spence, didn't some editor supposedly say, 'Fitzgerald, get rid of that Gatsby clown and you'll have yourself a good book'?"
All eyes turned to Roth and then back to Spence. The writer looked at Roth as if measuring the reach of an adversary. Then Spence smiled. "Purely apocryphal. Though it contains the seeds of possibility. Sir Wiliam Roth, is it?"
"Yes, a pleasure to meet you, my good man," Roth said, extending his hand. A tingle of pleasure surged through him as the "little people" oohed and aahed at this meeting of the gods. Spence polished off his drink and handed the empty glass to his shapely companion. "So what do you think of my analysis of Gatsby?"
"Scintillating. And I agree that Wolfe's book is ab-solute poppycock." Out of the corner of his eye, Roth watched the girl's shimmering rear as she walked to the bar.
Spence turned away from his admirers and squared off with Roth. The photographer nudged Spence toward the corner of the room. The crowd took its cue and broke into small groups, some stepping onto the porch for smokes, others refiling their drinks.
"What brings you to Korban Manor, Mr. Roth?"
Roth roled his scotch-and-water between his hands. "Business, sir. Always business with me."
"The devil, you say. That's just what the world needs, another four hundred negatives of this place. Or are you hired for a publicity shoot?"
"Hmmph. I'm working, too, if you can believe it."
Roth knew that Spence hadn't finished a novel in years. He had blustered his way through some opinion pieces and essays, and had penned a scathing introduc-tion to
The New Southern Voices Collection
that had likely driven some of the anthology's contributors to tears. The critics had given him up. He was like a beached whale—fun to poke while blood could be drawn, but shunned after becoming a bloated, gassy corpse.
"I would think this place would be rather inspiring for a man of your genius," Roth said, barely disguising the taunt.
Spence didn't rise to the bait. He'd probably read too many of his publisher's press releases, the ones that kept promising a coming masterpiece. "This is the one, Mr. Roth. This is the work that wil earn the Nobel Prize for Literature. It's about time an American brought home that particular piece of hardware. Nothing personal, mind you." Roth turned up one palm in submission. His British accent had fooled even Spence, a man who had trained himself to observe human behavior. Spence's girlfriend brought the writer his drink, put it in his hand, and du-tifully returned to his shadow.
Roth smiled at her and then began the laborious task of drawing Spence into his trust.
I'm a ghoulie-chasing fool.
Anna let the yellow beam of the flashlight lead her as if she had no will of her own. She found herself heading up a forest trail, onto one of the narrower worn paths crowded by laurel. The waxy leaves brushed against her face and hands. Crickets and katydids launched their choruses from the obscurity of the dark forest.
You follow and you follow and you never catch up. You reach out and they dance away. You run and they run
faster. You look in the dark and see nothing but darkness.
Ghosts played by their own rules. Anna had a hunch that ghosts didn't need to unravel secrets, didn't de-mand explanations. Life's great mysteries must mean very little to those no longer living. Undoubtedly all spirits received the necessary explanations as a gift to welcome them to the afterlife. But perhaps the dead needed amusement. Eternity surely got tedious after a while.
Anna wasn't worried about getting lost in the woods, even though Korban Manor's lighted windows had disappeared from view. After leaving the house, she'd stopped by the barn and found four horses in their stalls. She had massaged their necks and stroked the bristling hairs above their noses. She was comforted by their warm animal smel. The aroma of straw and manure brought back memories of one of her foster families, who had kept a farm in West Virginia. Anna had grown into a woman that summer. Her first sexual experience was with the handsome but dul boy who came every other day to colect the eggs. She'd also spent hours in the weedy local cemetery, sit-ting among the crumbling, ilegible markers, wonder-ing about the people under the ground and the part of them that might have survived the crush of dirt and decay.
And still she wondered, her curiosity sending her into anthropology at Duke University and parapsychol-ogy at the Rhine Research Center, and now out into the night woods. Roads that never ended, a seeking that never found. The moon and a sprinkle of starlight gave vague shape to the landscape. She folowed the ridge to the point where the ground sloped rapidly away. Boulders gleamed like bad teeth in the weak light. Beyond the field of stone was a yawning gap of black valley, dusted silver by an early frost.
The ribs and ripples of the Blue Ridge Mountains roled out toward the horizon, the distant twinkle of the town of Black Rock set among them like blue and or-ange jewels. A jet's winking red light cut a dotted line in the east. A little flying tin can of humanity, some passengers probably afraid of a crash, some munching stale peanuts, others longing for a cigarette. Most with thoughts of relatives, spouses, and lovers recently vis-ited or waiting at airport terminals ahead.
All with places to go, things to look forward to. People to belong to. Hopes, dreams, futures. Life. She thought of that Shirley Jackson line, "Journeys end in lovers meeting."
Yeah, right. Journeys end in death, and lovers never meet.
She turned from the lights that were starting to blur in her vision and put aside her self-pity. She had a for-est to explore. And she felt a tingle in her gut, an in-stinct that she had learned to trust even if Stephen couldn't prove it was real. There were dead among these trees and hills.
She sometimes wondered if the cancer was a pro-gression of that instinct. As if death were her true nat-ural state, and life was only an interruption to be briefly endured. As if, by rights, she belonged to the dead and that her sense of them grew stronger the closer she got to becoming one of them. That was morbid thinking. Still, she couldn't ignore the Jungian symbolism of turning her back on those dim, distant lights of civilization to enter the dark for-est alone. In search of herself.
This is my life's work. If I can leave just one thing behind, if I can shed a little light into the
ignorant and blind caves of the human consciousness, then maybe it's worth it. Or maybe I'm
more vain than any artist, politician, or religious zealot in thinking that my be-liefs matter.
Wouldn't it be nice to love, to belong, to be con-nected? To know that there was more to your
time of breathing than the rush toward its end? What if it WERE possible to meet another spirit,
touch someone, share the science of souls, to create something that has a life beyond living and
dying? Or is such wishing only a more grotesque form of vanity?
She stared at the cone of battery-powered light as it bobbed ahead of her on the trail. The older she got, and the closer to death and the deeper into her search she found herself, the more alone she became. And if there was anything that frightened her, that
frighten someone who had seen ghosts, it was the thought that any soul or consciousness or life force that continued beyond death would do so alone, forever isolated, for-ever lost. Anna figured she was about a mile from the manor now. She was beginning to tire. That was one of the things she hated most about her illness. Her strength was slowly draining away, slipping from this life into the next. She paused and played the flashlight along the ridge ahead of her. Night noises crept from beneath the canopy of hardwoods, the stirring of nocturnal animals and the restless mountain wind. A breath of pine-cleansed air and the cold dampness of the early twi-light revived her. The trail had intersected with several larger ones, and she had earlier crossed another wagon road. She folowed her instinct, the one that carried her through the night like the moon pulled a restless tide.