I really don’t know exactly how some people manage it, but I find myself having to choose between blogging and writing. Right now I’m about five chapters into a new historical novel that I’m very excited about; if you like tales of witchcraft, ghost stories and a house that makes Borley Rectory look like Disneyland, you’re going to enjoy this. That’s all I’m prepared to say right now.
Also, I’m running a little special offer at the moment – Paris Green is currently under $2 in the Kindle Store, so go grab yourself a copy.
If you need any further enticement, read beneath the cut.
In New York the mood was both somber and frustrated. People spoke softly and shook their heads whenever they passed a newsstand, but in secret they grumbled that the ball games had been cancelled. New York was not a city that was inclined to stop what it was doing for long, even for dead presidents.
In Gramercy Park the girls trimmed their new hats with black ribbon and tied black satin bows on the collars of their poodles and pugs.
Caroline looked through her closets and realized she had nothing suitable to wear – only last season’s Poiret – and that she was too fat for last year’s fashions. Her breasts and belly seemed to have swelled alarmingly in a matter of days, and she immediately blamed the oatmeal. Even her wrists and fingers seemed fatter than they had before she’d left for Amagansett, and that had only been two weeks ago. How much weight could a person gain in two weeks?
Corky came to sympathize almost as soon as she heard the Reids were back. “You poor baby,” she said, screwing a gold tipped cigarette into a long, ebony holder. “And your twenty-first too. What absolutely rotten stinking luck.”
She sounded British today – her accent veered wildly between New York, London and Paris depending on whomever and wherever was the most interesting at any given time. Lately she had deemed Aleister Crowley the most interesting person alive, so she affected an English accent and denounced Mussolini. “That ghastly government forced him out of Italy,” she complained. “But what can you expect from fascists? If there’s one thing those creatures loathe more than anything it’s individualism, and Aleister is all about the individual – Do What Thou Wilt, darling.”
As a beauty she was all her own invention. Her hair was red and her nose retroussé. Her lips were unfashionably full and her wide mouth twisted wryly to one side whenever she smiled. Her crooked smile had deepened the line between her nose and lips on the one side and her habit of cocking her head to listen drew attention to an abbreviated right earlobe. The earlobe had been variously consumed by a horse, shot off in a hunting accident or torn off by a diamond earring, depending on Corky’s mood or how much she’d had to drink.
“This lipstick makes me look seven weeks dead,” she complained, peering into Caroline’s dressing room mirror. She was wearing a cinnamon shade that Caroline thought flattering, but Corky said she never felt properly dressed in any other color than scarlet.
“Quite the thing for a memorial service,” said Corky, lolling her tongue out like a hanged man. She rummaged in her bag for the red and began to apply it in small, practiced strokes, somehow smoking all the while.
“Won’t your mother be mad?” asked Caroline. Like most mothers, Rose McCorkadale had needed to be introduced very carefully to the notion of any woman wearing ‘paint’ in church. Lipstick alone was bad enough – red lipstick was an outright admission of Babylonian tendencies.
“Probably,” said Corky. “But she should be grateful I even agreed to come. Church is against my religion – I’m a Satanist, for God’s sake.” She pulled her black velvet hat down over her frizzy hair. Her yellow-green eyes held a witchy glitter that made Caroline feel insipid by contrast.
“You are joking, aren’t you?” said Caroline.
“Darling, of course I’m kidding,” said Corky, handing Caroline her hat. “I was only doing it to annoy my mother. Besides, Aleister Crowley’s so disappointing – he looks like a potato and his followers are dumber than a third coat of paint. I met this Ordo Templis type in Greenwich last month – believed he could raise demons.”
Corky’s voice carried as they stepped out onto the landing.
“…I looked him in the eye and said ‘I can think I can hazard a guess at what you’re trying to raise – and it’s not demons,’…”
“…he was quite unabashed and said one had to be nude in order to order to perform the ritual correctly…”
“Will you stop?” Over the rail of the banister Caroline could see the top of her mother’s hat below.
“…I can’t imagine Hell is much fun, but not even the most desperate demon was going to crawl out of the pit for a little thing like that.” Corky waggled a pinkie finger to emphasize her point.
Unlike Corky, Caroline had acquired a reputation for virtue in spite of herself. She gave no real thought to God one way or the other, but presumably He had to be there – people wouldn’t make such a fuss if He wasn’t, surely? She did, however, love the church for its coolness and for the purity and beauty of its plain, vaulted ceiling. In quiet moments, when everyone was talking and her feet burned with the desire to be someplace else, Caroline would make her excuses and walk the few blocks to Calvary, knowing that nobody would disturb her in something so praiseworthy as religious devotion. Her face – blond, oval and blameless as a Medieval Madonna – lent itself to other people’s projected pieties.
In fact she went to church because it was quiet, and because her feet itched. On weekday afternoons when the place was empty she would sit in the pews, slide off her shoes and savor the cool of the inlaid stone floor. Today was very different – today she wanted to run in the opposite direction when she saw the crowd. It was packed with people in black, people wearing solemn expressions appropriate to dead presidents and others who weren’t even trying to look as though they cared.
“Nearer, my dog, to thee,” muttered Corky, caressing the curly head of a black-ribboned poodle as she passed its owner. A ripple of outrage passed through the people behind them and Caroline knew that this silly little blasphemy would be all over New York by sunset; Corky’s changeling eyes gleamed at the prospect.
There was a logjam further down the aisle, leaving them standing for a moment in the nave. The press of bodies was unbearable. Some of the elderly ladies wore black taffeta, a fabric stiff and unwelcoming as armor. Stale last-century scents lurked in the sharp edged folds – a dreadful, funereal perfume of tuberose, civet and dust.
Caroline looked up at the ceiling, hoping to remember why she liked it here, why she could be here without feeling nervous or crazy, but it just made her feel dizzy and oppressed. There were hard, jostling shoulders all around her and Corky was lost in the crowd. So she looked down instead and that was worse – all those feet. Men’s feet in their hard, black shoes, women’s feet in heels of various heights, dust and grime smeared all over the pristine stone floor where she had liked to (never again) cool the soles of her sore feet. She saw the pet poodle lowered to the floor, straining its leather leash as it tried to sniff round the corner of a pew. It was panting in the heat and she watched in horror as it dipped its be-ribboned head to the floor and swiped its pinkish-grey tongue over a patch of brownish crud smeared on the stone.
“Excuse me,” she said, softly at first, but louder and louder as her stomach cramped. She forced her way through the crowd, so sure that she was going to vomit that she dispensed with the ‘excuse me’s and just shoved. She gasped like a swimmer when she reached the open air, but the feeling of relief was short-lived. She realized almost immediately that she’d made a spectacle of herself and she felt shame settle around her shoulders, as if a cold, wet blanket had been laid over them.
“Honey, are you sick?” A voice at her elbow. Aunt Marie. Caroline’s mother was an only girl, but half of the older women in Caroline’s social circles answered to ‘Aunt’, as if nineties corsetry had made them all sisters in suffering.
“It was crowded,” said Caroline, with a great effort. “I needed some air.”
Aunt Marie pulled off Caroline’s grey silk gloves and rubbed her hands. “You’re white as a sheet. Oh Caro, did you even eat breakfast?”
“Yes?” said Caroline, unable to keep her head from shaking. She had never been a good liar and breakfast had been oatmeal again. Perhaps her mother had been right all along – she was pale because she didn’t eat her oatmeal. She could have stood pale if it meant she was also thin, but when she’d stood side-on in the mirror that morning her belly had looked like a pumpkin.
“You must eat something,” said Aunt Marie. “Wait there – catch your breath. I’ll find Grace and get you a cab. Don’t move.”
Caroline felt unsteady on her feet. She wanted to lean against something – the shelf of stone wall behind her – but once more she saw that little dog licking at God-knows-what and her knees were knocked out from under her by a fresh wave of nausea. When the world stopped spinning she found herself leaning heavily on someone’s arm.
“You’ll excuse my presumption, Miss,” said a countryish voice somewhere above her ear. “But I couldn’t very well let you fall, now, could I?”
She breathed deeply and straightened up. Her rescuer was young – very young. He didn’t look much more than eighteen, with a thatch of untidy dark hair atop a thin, pale face. His features were delicate without being beautiful – pointed nose, weak mouth and small chin. His eyes were a clear and arresting blue.
“Thank you,” she said. “I was crowded – I couldn’t get my breath.” Nothing to do with oatmeal, she thought, with a flash of rebellion. How could she be hungry when she was so fat? She could live off her reserves, like a hibernating bear.
“I reckon it bothers the most sensitive like that,” said the young man. She couldn’t place his accent – Upstate or Appalachia, it was all the same to her ear, an ear that could nonetheless distinguish Boston Irish from pilgrim provenance. She was suddenly conscious of what a narrow world hers had always been.
“Sensitive to what, exactly?” she asked. She could never pinpoint the trick of cadence, but somehow he lent distinction to the word – sensitive. He didn’t get to answer her because Corky came elbowing out of the church, Aunt Marie bobbing in her turbulent wake.
“Caro, are you dying?” said Corky. “We can’t find your mother anywhere.”
“I’m fine,” said Caroline, although as soon as she said it she knew she could never go back into that crowd. She was doubtful if she could set foot in Calvary again; the thought of the dog and the dirty floor loured at the edge of her mind like the great grey-black cloud of an incoming swoon.
It was stupid to faint over a grubby floor like that, and yet the blue-eyed boy was looking at her as if she were special, as if sensitivity was a virtue and not a weakness. “Amanda, can I trust you to take Caroline home?” said Aunt Marie. “I must find Mrs. Reid.”
Corky’s face was the picture of big-eyed innocence. “Of course you can trust me, Mrs. VanHuysen. I’ll get her straight home.” She reached out to take Caroline’s arm.
“Wait,” said Caroline, turning back to the young man. “Thank you, Mr…”
The boy bowed. “Blakemoor,” she said, taking her hand. “Andrew Blakemoor. At your service, ma’am.”
His hand was cold and supple, the fingers long and spidery, but he held her with a soft grip that was somehow impossible to resist. He meant no harm, she told herself, even though the chill of his flesh made her shiver. It would be rude to wrench her hand away, even though she wanted to, because he was raising it to his lips.
He held her gaze as he kissed her hand. His eyes were the bluest she had never seen – not a speck of green or grey in them, but the same blank, flat blue as the August sky above them. His lips were – thankfully – dry. She didn’t know what she would have done if they’d been wet – scrambled to wipe the back of her hand, probably. She would have appeared awkward, ill mannered, like a child scrubbing off an aunt’s kiss.
“Okay, time out, Sir Galahad,” said Corky, who had been born with the blessed gift of insouciance. She flashed a tight, red smile at Mr. Blakemoor and led Caroline to the waiting cab.
“What a spook,” she said, closing the door.
Aunt Marie’s face appeared at the window. “Straight home, Amanda,” she said.
“Of course,” said Corky, although as soon as the cab was in motion she hitched up her skirt and liberated her hip flask from her stocking top. “Here – it’s medicinal,” she said, grimacing through a mouthful of cognac. “Legal as you please.”
Caroline was willing to bet it wasn’t – there was no chance Corky had a prescription for the alcohol – but she took some all the same, glad of the burn of the spirit in her throat and chest.
“You must be sick,” said Corky, making a face. “Since you’re not lecturing me about swilling on a Sunday.”
Caroline handed her back the flask and rummaged in her purse for peppermints to cover up the smell. “I’m not sick,” she said. “I was just crowded. There were a lot of people at Calvary today.”
“Including Rumplestiltskin there. What did you say his name was?”
“I didn’t. He did. Blackmoor or something – Andrew.”
“Andrew Blakemoor?” Corky frowned. “It can’t be.”
“You know him?”
“Of him,” said Corky. “But he looks so young.”
“Why? How old is he supposed to be?”
“Almost thirty, I guess. But he doesn’t look much more than a boy.” Corky shuddered. “Maybe he has a gruesome looking portrait stashed in an attic somewhere.”
“Well, who is he?” asked Caroline, growing impatient with Corky’s theatrics.
“He’s a psychic. They say he exorcised the ghost of Tut-Ankh-Amun.”
Caroline blinked. “Who’s they?”
“Everyone. Well, except for Harry Houdini – he said some things which weren’t so complimentary, but you know how he is with psychics these days.”
Sensitive, he had said. Maybe that explained the weight he had attached to the word. He thought she was sensitive, special. Caroline shook her head to clear it, appalled that she had taken this as some kind of flattery. His overstated chivalry would have been nothing but fun if it had been someone like Tom performing the pantomime, someone ordinary who whistled silly songs like ‘Yes, We Have No Bananas’, but Blakemoor had been as serious as death. Caroline had always thought of herself as a serious person, but there was a line where seriousness crossed into urgency, need – and there was nothing good beyond that line.