Bloodcircle Chapter 11

THE LAST OF the relatives were gone and the staff had cleared away their debris and swept up. Except for the stale stink of cigarette smoke hanging in the air, no signs were left of the recent invasion. I made a careful and quiet sweep of the place to make sure Cousin Abigail hadn't lingered in some corner, but all was clear and silent. In a den off the main hall I found a third of a bottle of whiskey in a liquor cabinet and took it upstairs.

The door to Emily's room was locked, probably as a precaution against family souvenir hunters. The room was undisturbed and both jewel safes in her closet were firmly shut, but I wasn't interested in them. I pocketed what I needed and left.

I listened for a long time outside Laura's door to be certain that Mrs.

Mayfair was gone and that the girl was alone. Water ran and splashed;she was having a long shower to steam away the day's troubles. The water sound cut off and softer, less distinct ones replaced it as she toweled down and padded barefoot around her room.

Her door abruptly opened in my face and her light blue eyes flashed on me in shock and fear. She nearly screamed, but didn't. The house was empty, no one would hear.

She was head to toe in black, her bright blond hair covered by a black scarf.

’’Going to a funeral?’’ I asked.

Her heart jumped and she backed away, but I caught her wrist, swinging her around until she was pressed against the wall. Now she did try to scream, a normal reflex to the situation, but I stopped that with one hand and talked quickly, urgently, focusing in hard enough to crack through her terror. It eventually worked and she relaxed against the wall and I took my hand away from her mouth.

’’Where were you going?’’ I asked.

’’The basement.’’

’’Why?’’

’’I have to get rid of him.’’

It was no galloping surprise. At this point I was just being thorough.

’’Did you try to--did you kill Barrett?’’

’’Yes.’’

’’Why?’’

’’He knew--knew--’’ She was struggling against it and could shake it off if she fought hard enough.

’’All right, calm down. Everything's okay.’’

Her breathing smoothed out.

’’Go back into your room, lock the door, and sit down.’’

I followed her in. She chose to sit at her dressing table on a little satin stool much like the one in Bobbi's room. I checked the place, keeping well clear of the veranda windows. The stables were at an oblique angle to them on this side, but there was a chance Haskell might look out and see my figure against her curtains. It was very important that she appear to be alone now.

She was--at least in the mirrors.

It was a cheery place, with yellow flowers blooming in the wallpaper, and a thick rust-colored rug covered most of the floor. The bath was warm and damp from her shower, and that day's black dress was crumpled into a hamper. She'd rinsed her stockings herself and hung them over the shower rod to dry.

I found a chair and dragged it over to face her. In the mirror-covered wall it moved all by itself.

She was very still, waiting for me to speak. Her body rhythms were strong and even. After an active summer of swimming and riding, her skin was tanned and healthy. She was quite a beautiful girl and her youth attracted me even as it must have attracted Barrett.

’’Laura, my name is Jack. You remember me from earlier tonight?’’

She nodded.

’’I'm going to ask you some questions and you will want to answer them.

You can tell me the truth, to do so will make you feel very good.’’

She waited, disinterested and seeing nothing.

’’Laura, did you kill Maureen Dumont?’’

’’Who?’’

And that threw me until I realized she might never have heard the name.

’’Remember the summer of the fire?’’

’’Yes.’’

’’Remember the dark-haired woman who came one night to see Barrett?’’

’’Yes.’’

’’Did you kill that woman?’’

She'd buried it deep and it didn't want to come out. Her breath got short, and for a second, real awareness came back to her eyes. I steadied her down and soothed her, keeping my voice low, but pitched so she had to listen. I told her it was all right to answer and repeated my question, and then she said yes.

I felt nothing looking into her blank eyes. Her face ceased to belong to a person and took on the smooth, bland beauty of a mannequin. The lost years and the emotional racking and the physical trauma had taken all feeling from me. The worry, fear, and doubt that had once driven me were gone, and I was empty. We mirrored each other now. All I had left were questions, and they weren't really mine, but Escott's.

’’Laura, talk to me. Tell me about it. Why did you do it?’’

She revealed no surprises. Escott had been right. She was in love with Barrett and had killed to keep him.

’’Did you kill Violet that summer?’’

’’No, the fire did.’’

It was an odd answer and I picked a subtle change in her tone of voice, as though I were talking to a child. ’’Did you set the fire in the house?’’

’’No.’’

’’How did it start?’’

’’The lamp cord.’’

’’Did you do something to the lamp cord?’’

’’I fixed it.’’

’’So that it would start the fire?’’

’’Yes.’’

’’Then you did kill Violet.’’

’’No, the fire killed her.’’

I could argue with her, but to no point. Her exacting logic was how she could live with herself, by shifting the blame. ’’Why did you kill her?’’

For Barrett, all for Barrett. She'd wanted him that badly. She'd frayed the wires and fixed the rug so that air could feed in. All she had to do was turn on the lamp and wait. When the first flames sprang up she went out the door and snuck back to her room.

’’How could you do that?’’

She gave a little shrug. ’’It was easy.’’

Fire and ice inside me and now the same sickness I'd felt when Banks had died.

’’How did you kill Maureen?’’ Someone else seemed to be talking to her but using my voice.

She'd read up about vampires that summer. She knew more about us than Barrett had ever suspected, and she knew what to do.

Being a strong girl, it had been nothing for her to lift Maureen's small body from her trunk to the bath in the bright light of morning. She'd filched a sharp stake of wood from Mayfair's work shed and she had a hammer. Frozen by daylight, Maureen had died without a sound. The only problem for Laura was the blood. Her clothes had been soaked with it and she was frightened she'd be found out. She'd spent hours cleaning it up.

In a cardboard box scavenged from the kitchen she hid Maureen's body. It was very light now, hardly more than a husk. She had no trouble getting it downstairs and out the side door, away from the servants'wing.

Dragging it into some trees, she used their cover to take it to the ruins of the old house.

She'd been forbidden to play there, but such rules had never stopped her before. There was a broken spot in the floor above the deepest part of the cellar. It sagged under her weight, but she was careful to move slowly and test each step, pushing the box ahead of her. Grating against the soot and debris, it barely held together. She just managed to get it to the edge and pushed it in.

It had been a rainy summer, but the splash still startled her. She hadn't expected the cellar to be so full of water. A cautious look over the edge showed only a rippling reflection of the sky behind her head.

There was no sign of the box or of Maureen's body. She was safe.

The parallels of what happened to Maureen and what nearly happened to me were all too clear in my mind. I knew exactly what she had gone through, and inside I was screaming for her. I stood and backed away from Laura.

Not all feeling had died. The war was still going on between fiery rage and cold justice. Neither was canceling the other out, both seemed to be fusing together somehow.

’’What about Maureen's things?’’ I asked, a calm stranger once more using my voice.

The only real problem was in getting rid of the woman's trunk. The earth she mixed in with the flower beds, the clothes Laura took to her room and hid under the bed. She spent the rest of the day reading and dancing by herself before the mirrors, as she usually did.

The household schedule was unorthodox, but regular. The staff did downstairs maintenance until midafternoon, when Emily woke up. After her breakfast, the maid was allowed to work upstairs. No one paid much attention to Laura or her activities. Showing up on time for meals was all that was expected of her.

She and Emily shared supper just before sunset, as usual, then Emily went downstairs to be with Barrett. Whenever Emily was with him, they almost always spent an hour or more together. Laura returned to her own room and changed into Maureen's clothes, called for a cab, and waited by the phone. Both Violet and Emily had been generous concerning her allowance. She had over two hundred dollars on hand. She took it all, not knowing how much it would cost to go to Port Jefferson.

The call came from the gatehouse. Laura answered on the first ring and gave Mayfair permission to let John Henry Banks through. The main danger now was that Barrett might break his pattern because of his guest and come up earlier than usual. He didn't, and she brought the empty trunk safely downstairs and out the front door.

Two minutes later she was on her way to Port Jefferson. Banks dropped her off near the ferry and drove back to Glen-briar to celebrate his five-dollar tip.

’’What happened to the trunk?’’

’’I found stones to put in it and dropped ,t off the end of a dock.’’

’’You take another cab home?’’

’’Yes.’’

She had the Port Jefferson driver drop her near the gate, snuck through, and walked back to the house without being caught. She listened to her radio and danced before her mirror, pretending that Barrett was her partner.

’’What did you do with her clothes?’’

’’I pushed them into the house incinerator. Haskell burned them up the next day with the usual trash.’’

She watched the trucks and crews roll in and begin tearing down the ruins. The blackened shards of wood were torn away, and the broken glass was removed. What was left of the floor was pounded apart and allowed to cave in to the cellar, which gradually filled with the packed debris. A few days later more trucks came in with topsoil and covered it all like a grave.

All too fitting.

I found it difficult to look at her. ’’Then you just went on as before?’’

’’Yes.’’

’’No questions, no guilt?’’

She blinked.

’’Didn't you feel bad about what you did?’’

’’Why should I?’’

’’You killed. You murdered an innocent woman you knew nothing about.’’

’’Well, I had to.’’

No guilt, no regret. A job finished and a goal achieved. Barrett would be hers when the time came.

’’What about Barrett? When did he start to notice you as a woman?’’

She smiled at the memory. ’’He's always been looking at me. Always, always, always. I'm young and I'm beautiful and he wants me.’’ The little-girl voice was back again.

’’What about Emily?’’

’’He wants me, not her.’’

’’But what about her?’’

’’She's dead.’’

’’I know. Did you kill her?’’

’’I had to.’’

’’Why?’’

’’She heard us talking.’’

’’About what?’’

Barrett had wasted no time last night. After punching me out he went straight home to Laura, finally hypnotizing her to get the truth.

She'd heard about the man asking questions about the fire from the house staff. The story of Banks and his memorable tip came up. She left to find him, to see for herself if he was a danger. She carried along a small suitcase. Inside it was a club.

Parking her car near a gas station with a phone, she called for Banks to come pick her up. They drove a little and she talked with him. Her questions about his Port Jefferson trip clicked things together in his memory, and he recognized her. He thought it to be an amazing coincidence.

She asked him to stop the car and he did so, still chattering about her and how she'd changed. She brought the club out of the suitcase and smashed it into the side of his head as hard as she could. She hit him several times to make sure, then took his money box to make it look like a robbery.

The storm was bad by now, but her car wasn't too far from where they'd stopped. She got out, but before she could get away, another car appeared and she saw the driver talking to Banks. She took care of him as well, then fought her way through the rain to her own vehicle.

Breathless, she tumbled into it and crept home again. She laughed to see a third car in line behind the others as she passed. The frantic man waving at her to stop looked so ridiculous.

Once home, she had the bad luck to be spotted by Barrett. He'd worried that she'd been caught out in the rain and they joked about her wet clothes. Things weren't so funny to him later.

The next night he pressed her for answers and Emily had heard them talking. She didn't know what was going on;she'd only heard the tone of Barrett's voice, and it frightened her.

’’Silly old woman,’’ said Laura. ’’She should have left me alone. It's all her fault.’’

’’What's her fault?’’

’’She worried all night and then got up early to talk with me. Jonathan had told me to forget it, but then she started talking, so it's her fault.’’

’’Why did he tell you to forget it?’’

’’I don't know.’’

’’But you remembered when Emily asked you about it?’’

’’Yes.’’

She had only to lie again, to say that Barrett had been scolding her for driving out in the hurricane.

’’Then what happened?’’

’’Then I had to do it again,’’ she said wistfully.

Except for Barrett, Emily had the only other key to his rooms. Laura knew where it was kept and stole it and used it.

Her experience with Maureen left her better prepared to deal with Barrett. This time she stripped to the skin before using her stake and hammer. She cried while she cleaned up, because she did love him.

’’I really did, but this was coming and I wish it hadn't happened so soon.’’

’’You planned to kill him anyway?’’

’’I didn't want to, but he would have spoiled it all.’’

’’Spoiled what?’’

’’It's Emily's fault, not mine. It's her fault he's dead and that I had to take care of her, too. She'd have found out, so I had to take care of her, and it's her fault, not mine, all her fault--’’

’’Laura, why were you going to kill him before?’’

’’Because.’’

She was a complete child now, speaking with a child's voice and using a child's logic. Grown up in so many other ways, something within her was stunted or had never been a part of her at all.

’’Laura, tell me why you were going to kill him.’’

’’Because.’’

’’Why?’’

’’He was going to marry her.’’

That rocked me back. Now I knew what Barrett had been telling Laura while I'd watched from the window and Bing Crosby sang from the radio.

From that night, Barrett had been a doomed man.

’’Were you jealous?’’

’’He was going to get what belonged to me. He was going to have me, but I wasn't enough and he'd get all of it when she died. He'd take it all away because she'd give it to him.’’

I'd been right;she'd made an investment for her future. She loved Barrett, maybe, but he was nothing compared to Emily's money.

’’He should have said no, like all the other times--

’’You mean Emily proposed to him?’’

’’He should have said no, but this time he said yes and it's her fault, not mine--’’

’’Hush, now. It's all right, hush.’’

She trailed off, her face red with anger, the anger she'd hidden from him so well when he'd told her the news.

’’Laura, how do you feel about murder?’’

I had to repeat the question. She shook her head.

’’Don't you feel anything at all about killing those people?’’

Puzzlement. Another head shake.

’’How do you think they felt?’’

Her face was blank.

’’Don't you think they had a right to live?’’

She shrugged. It was like explaining light and color to the totally blind. She would never, ever be able to see.

’’Are you thirsty, Laura?’’

’’A little.’’

’’I'll get you a glass of water. Wait right here.’’

In her bathroom I mixed the stuff with the whiskey and stirred it around in a glass with my finger until it dissolved. 1 wiped everything clean and took the glass in wrapped in a washcloth. I told her it was cold water and that she was to drink it all.

’’Will you write something for me, Laura?’’

’’Yes.’’

’’Good.’’

She put down the empty glass and smeared dark pink lip color onto her dressing-table mirror, and I gave her the washcloth to wipe her finger on. The few words scribbled over the glass were for others to read and interpret. For her, they were utterly meaningless.

’’You're tired, Laura. It's been a busy day. Go to bed now.’’

She stretched but didn't yawn, and immediately stripped off her clothes and tucked them neatly into the hamper. She'd dressed for darkness on her way to dispose of Barrett's body, but that task was forgotten as she got ready for a good night's sleep.

I looked under the bed and found the suitcase with his clothes. He was meant to disappear like Maureen. None of the Franchers would be sorry that the fortune hunter had left. No doubt his clothes would have gone into the incinerator for Haskell to burn. I put the case out in the hall and relocked the door.

She brushed out her hair, taking her time and staring at her body in the mirror. Her movements were growing slower and more unsteady as the minutes passed. She put on a nightgown but each action had to be thought out, and in between, she'd pause and try to recall what the next was to be.

She got into bed. The lights were on. I turned them off for her, using the cloth again as I had for the door. I left the bedside table lamp on.

Her eyes canted to the radio and her hand twitched. By now she'd lost muscle control. I turned it on for her, it warmed up, and we listened to soft dance music.

She was deeply asleep now. Her breathing was slow and shallow even as her pulse speeded up. A thin sheen of sweat appeared on her serene face.

Instead of the sleeping mannequin on the bed, I saw Emily Francher.

I saw John Henry Banks.

I saw a last ghostly image of Maureen flash over my inner eye and spin away forever into memory.

I waited and watched and felt nothing.

Nothing until the time finally came and the room was silent but for the radio.

Nothing until I looked at the scrawl on the mirror and read the words I'd dictated: I'm sorry. God forgive me.

Then I bowed my head and tried not to weep.

’’How is he?’’ I asked.

Escott came in and sat across from me. I was in the red leather chair by the cold fireplace staring at the unswept ashes. The candles next to Emily's casket were out, but I'd put on a table lamp so she wouldn't be left in the darkness.

’’He's better.’’

’’That's good.’’

’’He was cleaning up and getting dressed when I left him.’’

My voice sounded a little too normal. ’’Does he know about Emily?’’

’’He asked. I only told him she was dead. He did not seem too surprised.

I expect he'll be up here before long.’’

’’Did you talk about Laura?’’

’’Yes. He knew it had been her today.’’

’’I thought he would. What'll he do?’’

’’I don't know.’’

We left it at that for a time and listened to the silence of the massive house around us. I'd long since shut off Laura's radio.

I got to my feet. ’’I'll go find out.’’

His face was very sad but he said nothing, and I was grateful for that.

I could have walked right through Barrett's door, but knocked and waited instead. After a long minute he said to come in and I did, leaving the suitcase with his clothes by the bed.

He was in his library seated on a long couch. He'd pulled on some pants and slippers, but his shirt was buttoned only halfway, as though he'd forgotten to finish the job. There was a new weariness in his expression, the kind that comes from a tired soul and not just a tired body. His arms hugged his chest, a gesture I could commiserate with;I'd felt the same when it had happened to me.

I stood in the doorway, hands jammed in my pockets. ’’Glad you're better.’’

He nodded. ’’Your friend didn't seem to want to hear it, so I'll say it to you: thank you for pulling me back.’’ shrugged self-consciously, beginning to understand Escott's attitude. ’’He's the one who got me moving. Haskell helped a lot, too.’’

'Haskell? Did you influence him?’’

’’At first, but he woke out of it. He kept going, though. He knows about you.’’ Well, well.’’

'Says he'd seen you with the horses.’’ 'And he accepts me anyway. I'll be thanking him, too.’’ aEYeah.’’

He mused for a while and looked up, afraid to hope. ’’Is there any change in Emily?’’

'Not the last I saw her. How long did it take for Maureen?’’

'Twas on the same night she died.’’

’’Same for me. For what it's worth, I'm sorry all this happened.’’

He accepted, numbly. ’’Thank you.’’ He gestured at a chair. I declined and remained in the doorway.

’’I need to talk to you about Laura.’’

He shook his head. ’’No, you don't, Mr. Fleming. Not one word. I've been a fool's fool over that girl and there's no excuse for me. You were both right. I wish to God I'd realized it earlier--’’

’’Sheshe pushed Emily.’’

He faltered.

’’She remembered you questioning her;that's why she came here to kill you. Then she had to kill Emily to cover up your death.’’

The pain rolled off him like a tidal wave and I stayed there and let it hit me. I said nothing about the money or anything stupid like that because the man was falling apart in front of me, and I stared at the floor for the whole time and pretended not to see or hear him.

Later he mumbled something about talking to Laura.

’’No, Barrett, stay here.’’

’’I have to--’’

’’She's dead.’’

The man was in pieces already and it was my lot to smash them into smaller shards.

’’I found her. She'd put some sleeping pills in a drink.’’

The truth, but not all of it. He didn't want to believe it and then he couldn't help but believe it. All he had to do was look up at my face and see it there. I stared at the damned floor and memorized the carpet pattern.

’’I think maybe it was too much for her, and in the end she was sorry.’’

The one thing I could give him was the cold comfort of a lie. He needed it badly.

Then it came pouring out of him, and I listened and let him talk because he had to get it all out. He repeated what I'd learned from Laura, everything about Violet and Maureen and Banks;the words tumbling swiftly until they ceased to be words and turned into an unintelligible drone.

’’I wish I could have helped her,’’ he said at the end. ’’You could have,’’

I said, adding one more lie to give substance to his illusion. He accepted it.

Escott was cooling his heels in the main hall outside the parlor when I came up.

’’Ready to go home?’’ I asked.

’’What about Barrett?’’

’’We talked. He'll be all right.’’

’’What will he do?’’

’’I don't know, but he'll be all right.’’

’’Did you tell him about Laura?’’

’’He knows she's dead.’’ Barrett didn't need or want the truth. Maybe he'd figure it out someday, but he didn't need it now.

Barrett walked up. His shoulders drooped, but he'd buttoned his shin and tucked it in. It was a minor thing, but I took it as a good sign.

’’I thought I'd ride with you as far as the gate,’’ he said. ’’The May fairs will be long asleep by now and I'd rather not disturb them.’’

I started to say something, but forgot it--a small, soft sound distracted me. Barrett heard it, too, and automatically swiveled his head in the right direction. From where I stood I could see the parlor and noticed a white rose lying on the floor next to the casket. It was the rose Emily held to her breast. Somehow it had fallen out.

Barrett stared at us with sudden, agonized hope and dashed in to her.

end


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