Gas torches blossomed on the night, breezes chasing shadows over the vine-covered stone arches and wrought iron balconies of the distant Great-House. A pale crushed-shell path snaked between palm trees to link the main house to the cottage porch where I stood in the dark.
The warm air was thick with overripe scents, heavy in my lungs, oppressively intimate. I fingered the leaves of a vine strangling the porch rail, broke off a flower, twirled it in my fingers, and dropped it. Closing my eyes, I pressed fingertips to my forehead. A dull ache pulsed, keeping time to a heartbeat that didn’t feel like mine, somehow just out of sync, the humid darkness itself pulsing around me with its own life force. I was suffocating in its sticky embrace.
I ground my knuckles into my temples and took a deep breath. John had been so jazzed about this island, so insistent I visit. If that final letter had been the last of his outrageous dares, they’d landed me in worse places over the years than this hothouse “paradise.” Shaking my head, I headed for the light spilling through the open front door.
“Christ, I’m getting wrinkles! All that fucking sun.” Laura was peering intently into a mirror in the entrance hall, fingers on her face. “I’m done for . . . .”
I stopped in the doorway, looking across black-and-white chessboard tiles to her long gown shimmering with pale blue and silvery threads. Laura hadn’t heard me. Her reflected eyes were darkly dilated.
“Shit!” She whirled, clutching the folds of her dress. “Don’t creep up on me like that!”
With a low whistle, I crossed over to her. “You should be on a magazine cover. A very glossy one.”
She was polished to a sheen in the designer gown, high heels, sleek coiffure, and perfect makeup. Yet uncertainty rippled over her face. “Think I’ll do?” She touched her neck and turned back to the mirror. “I’m getting age lines already, only thirty! But I can’t resist a yummy tan.”
“Haven’t you heard of character lines?”
“Who are you kidding? Only men get to have those.” She glared at the mirror.
“What happened to the natural woman and inner beauty?”
“This is the real world, Professor!” She snorted, gesturing at my plain silk dress. “Look at you! It’s a formal affair, I don’t know why you won’t wear something of mine, let me do your face.”
“I can’t stand that goo, feel like I’m wearing a mask.”
“Christ, why do I bother?” She laughed. “It’s such a waste, you could be a knockout if you’d just put a teensy bit of effort into it.” She shrugged. “Suppose you’re still sleeping once a week with that anemic English prof, if he can get it up. Can’t take a shit without writing a thesis about it.” She touched her throat again. “Forgot the necklace!” She tapped over the tiles to her bedroom.
Left facing her mirror, I blew out a breath. I had to admit to a sneaky sense of superiority over women who were always checking their reflections, but maybe Laura’s mirror would help me understand her perspective, or provide at least a comparison study.
So, Susan Dunne, objective analysis:
Typical Nordic raw material. Tall, slender figure toned with all the running, bicycling, and hiking I loved. Thick sandy-blond hair brushing my shoulders, easy to pull into a no-fuss braid. Smooth, winter-pale skin, strong cheekbones, and green eyes that were nowhere near John’s high voltage. Mine were Pacific Northwest colors—subdued gray-green like the lichened trunks of ancient cedars, diffused light of the old forests, bracing depths of coldwater bays and mountain lakes.
I’d always downplayed my appearance, the same way I’d learned to suppress emotional bias and become the neutral observer an anthropologist should be. Even as a child, I’d realized my “TV tuner” made me odd. I didn’t want to call attention to myself. And the Link with my “go-for-it” brother gave me more than enough emotional thrills and chills.
Laura hadn’t transcended the urge to take potshots at my libido, but she was wrong. I enjoyed sex, like other sweaty sports, as long as I could avoid the kinds of messy entanglements I’d inadvertently “tuned into” all too often. People driven by dark urges, the need to possess more than just the body, digging shadowy fingers into a lover’s heart and ripping away with abandon. No, thanks. Michael and I had kept it separate and manageable.
But all at once, studying my face in my dead brother’s lover’s mirror, I realized how passionless my arrangement with Michael had been. I turned away from my reflected eyes. I’d stopped sleeping with him after the news about John, and somehow it hadn’t seemed worth it to start up again.
“Ready? I’ve got to get over to the house to babysit Leon’s millionaire client and greet the guests.” Laura shimmered back into the hall, smile flashing, a sapphire and diamond necklace glittering.
“Better check one more time.” I tilted my head at the mirror.
Laura frowned, leaned toward it, and irritably wiped the telltale flecks of white off her nostrils. She turned back to me with a sharp little laugh. “What? No lecture, Dr. Dunne?”
“Out of my field.”
“So let’s get hopping!” Lifting her long skirts, she hurried out the door, wobbled on her high heels down the path to the Great-House. “Damn these shells!”
I caught up with Laura at the pool patio. She was using a lot of gestures to explain something to a young native woman in a maid’s uniform.
Blank-faced, the woman let out a big sigh, looking past Laura.
“There you are!” Laura turned to me, flashing her jittery smile.
The maid brushed past without looking up.
“Don’t mind her, Susie!” The brittle, false laugh. “They’re all like that, it’s impossible to get decent help.”
The maid paused, back stiffening, then hurried off.
Laura stared after her, biting her lip. “Shit!” She sighed. “They all hate me.” She shot me a look and took a deep breath. “You think I’m a bitch, right?” She sounded like the old Laura again. “Sometimes it just gets to be too much, I don’t even know who I am any more.” She raised her hands, an entreating look breaking through the glittery facade. “Susie . . . .”
“Laura, is something wrong?”
“Wrong?” She produced another fake little laugh, turning with a sweep of her arm toward the pool, the groomed garden, the lighted Great-House. “What could be wrong with this picture?” She touched the sapphire necklace. “Look, I’ve got to check the rooms. You coming?”
“I’ll be in in a minute.”
“Okay. Ciao.” She swept off with a wiggle of fingers.
I was tempted to skip the whole scene. Wandering around the pool, I avoided the drowsy pulse of light, shook off an urge to curl up on padded wicker and sleep away my jet-lag.
Another shelled path on the far side of the patio led me back into lush foliage. Ducking under a palm frond, I followed the faint white glow that petered out past a stone bench into a dirt track. It took me away from the house toward the point of the steep peninsula originally claimed by a Danish sugarcane baron. Now it belonged to Leon Caviness, whose ancestors might have slaved on the plantation.
Laura had introduced me to her employer when we’d arrived at the Great-House. He was a very dark, tall “native,” his lean frame elegantly tailored. Close-cropped hair emphasized the strong bones of a classically long African skull. Arteries etched patterns around hollows in his temples, cheekbones jutting and nostrils flaring over sharply defined lips. To my anthropologist’s eye, the furrows in his broad forehead could have been rite-of-passage tattoos. Caviness reminded me of the stylized Ibo sculptures I’d been studying as background research, exaggerated features and large heads symbolizing force of spirit. I couldn’t judge his face beautiful or ugly, but it definitely had power.
“Susan Dunne.” His deep, musical voice was a liquid blend of accents, British, West Indian, a hint of French. “Anthropologist. Have you come to explicate our quaint folkways, Dr. Dunne? Will you leave us no secrets?”
I ignored his mocking tone. “I’m more interested in your petroglyphs, Mr. Caviness.”
He gave me a sharp look. “You’ve come to visit the site at Palm Cay, then.”
“I’m investigating sites on this island.”
“I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. There aren’t any.”
“I have some leads. Thank you for letting me stay a few days with Laura.”
He waved that aside, turning to the bookcase lining one wall of the study with its high ceiling and open French doors looking out to the distant sea. “Do you like poetry, Dr. Dunne?”
“It depends on which poetry.”
He pulled out a volume. “I make a hobby of collecting old books. I acquired this one from a dealer on the island, who had purchased it from a young man with blond hair and green eyes.”
He took up a careless pose on the edge of his mahogany desk, swinging one leg and leafing through the pages. He read in a beautifully resonant voice:
“No man is an island, entire of itself;
Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main . . . .
Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind;
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.”
He studied me, one eyebrow raised.
I wasn’t about to let this arrogant stranger dissect my grief like something under a bell jar. Clenching my jaw, I met his gaze.
He didn’t back off, instead he only stared more intently, probing. For a disorienting moment he swelled to fill my vision, dark shape looming over me, invading me through my eyes. An unsettling sensation of an alien presence stirred inside me. Almost like my “tunings,” except this was different, as if he had reached inside me to trigger it.
I stepped back, thrusting off the disturbing notion and turning away from his stare.
A dismissive gesture. “Clearly, the poetry is outdated. Your brother must have thought so. The book is yours.” He rose and dropped it into my hands.
It was a slim volume, bound in worn leather, Selected Works of John Donne. I opened the cover to find our father’s bookplate still there. “To my son John, on his sixteenth birthday, with love.”
It had been a treasured possession of Dad’s. As a literature professor, he’d clung to the hope John might belatedly take an interest in his illustrious namesake. John did share the poet’s passionate involvement in mankind. It was just that he’d been more interested in the mailman and milkman, old Florence and Augusta down the road, or how the guys down at Herb’s Bait and Tackle had made out on the river, than in “dusty old books.”
Still, I found it hard to believe he would have sold the heirloom.
Laura pounced on the book, flipping pages. “Why didn’t you tell me you had this, Leon?”
He was still watching me, a supercilious smile on his lips, and I was irrationally certain he’d planned the scene just to see how I’d react.
“Arrogant jerk.” I was rooted back on the dark path among shadowed trees, staring into the night, hands fisted. I shook my head and pushed impatiently on, picking my way along the twists of the narrowing trail in the gloom, ducking under boughs. Laura had given me “the spiel” about the plantation’s history and the restoration of the eighteenth-century Great-House by her employer’s grandfather, but not much about Leon Caviness himself. He was a dealer in rare art, who often entertained visiting clients. Laura hadn’t been very informative about her own role as social secretary for the bachelor’s estate.
Pat MacIntyre’s Cheshire Cat grin floated on the darkness.
I thrust past it, through a curtain of sweet-flowering branches. The shrouded path ended in an open expanse of black volcanic rock dropping away over a steep cliff. A nearly-full moon sailed above low cloud drifts, spilling white light and black shadows over the cliff, repainting the night in stark otherworldliness. Darkness seemed to ooze from the rock itself to absorb the moonlight. The narrow point dropped in fissured fault blocks, giant stairsteps down to the surf. To the right, a sheltered bay mirrored the shimmering trail of the moon, and to the left, the open stretch of ocean hurled wind and waves to crash in white foam against black rock.
Something held me motionless in the wild spot, breathing the salt wind, soaking in the night. The place gave me neither welcome nor warning. I was only an insect perching there. The sheer mass of rock, imbedded in water and moonlight, reduced the nearby presence of lights and cars to a fitful dream.
Almost. I belonged to that smaller, civilized world.
In another existence, I might have thrown off my clothes and danced homage to the moon, embraced the stones and flung myself into the cool arms of the sea, seeking their magic release from my grief.
Turning brusquely back to the path, I stopped short, then dropped to my knees near the rocky cliff edge and brushed a vine aside from a flat shelf of the stone.
A glass jar tipped and rolled over the rock with a clatter and the scent of rum. I caught it reflexively, staring down at what looked like a freshly-severed chicken head lying on a mound of grainy flour. Beside it, a crude face stared out of the stone.
The moonlight suddenly rippled in dizzying waves, my heartbeat echoing in my ears. No, it was a drum, beating out an urgent rhythm, overriding my pulse. The stone beneath me throbbed like a tautly-stretched hide, and the beat shuddered through me, demanding, my blood pumping to its rhythm, not my own. An indignant protest rose up in me, but there was something, some blind force in the night, in the echoing rhythm, that brushed this logic aside.
*the pounding beat is a live being. It takes my senses, the pores of my skin, opens them wide to greedily drink in the heat and the moonlight and perfumes of rum and flowers. It dances my feet to the driving rhythm*
I jolted back from the carving, skin crawling with irrational fear. I shook my head and took a deep breath, let it out. “Get a grip, Susan,” I muttered.
Leaning forward, I studied the carved stone. Moonlight and shadow highlighted grooves scored into the rock, a very basic petroglyph, one of the common designs found from Australia to Africa to Alaska. Nose and eyes, an elemental watcher looking out to sea. My hand felt oddly detached from my will, reaching down to trace the lines of the carving. The ancient face almost looked ready to find its tongue and speak.
“Wha you do here?” The harsh voice came from behind me.
I lunged on a burst of adrenaline to my feet, spinning around, startled into clumsiness as I stumbled backwards. A man clutched my arm and yanked me from the verge, a glimpse of boulders pawed by the sea below.
The face revealed by the bright moon was not reassuring. It was broad, black, and scowling. Long woolly hair hung over his brow and down to his shoulders in unkempt dreadlocks. His clothes were patched together from multi-colored rags of shirts and cutoff trousers, and he had thick legs and arms and big hands. A scar ran across his left cheek and pulled his upper lip into a sneer.
“Wha you wan here?” It was a slurred, single-word burst. “You wan trouble?”
Pulse thrumming in my ears, I remembered Pat MacIntyre’s warnings about the violent “Dreads.” There was no place to go except the path the man was blocking. He stepped closer, the whites of his eyes glimmering.
A crooning noise in his throat. “Liddy missy scare?” He chuckled nastily.
“Mr. Caviness is waiting for me at the Great-House.” I cleared my throat, injected some authority. “Now please move.”
“Huh.” A contemptuous thrust of the hand. “You go. Stay way!”
I needed no urging. The man stepped aside and I hurried through the bushes onto the path, fighting the impulse to run, the back of my neck prickling. I managed to retrace the twists and turns in the dark, tripping over roots in my haste. I stopped at the edge of the pool terrace, heart galloping.
Movement and voices inside the big house, and a muted progression of piano counterpoint. Bach. Intricate harmonies, impossibly cool and civilized amidst the humid air and riotous foliage. Chords spilled through the night, pebbles dropping into a moonlit pond.
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