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The Christdolou Gambit/Double Standard

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Old 06-06-2011, 03:59 PM
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Default The Christdolou Gambit/Double Standard


*This is a ghost story/psychological thriller that I wrote some time ago now. Enjoy.


The iridescent dusk seemed to wax away gradually, as twilight slowly caused the sun to descend into the bosom of the silhouetted foothills. Once, when the gods were nomads, the most cherished among them always made love this way, as the chariot reached its daily zenith of closure in the sky. Human passions are rumoured to climax in the moments preceding death, as though indomitable passions could possibly thwart the inevitable. The act of dying is a consensual exercise.


************


Now, the temples have long since been thrown open, and their occupants exorcised as the axes of the legions pillaged their treasuries and ground the priests into dust. When the Roman factions, too, paid their passing tribute, a new hierarchy emerged in the wake of their departure from those forsaken lands. Though Gaul and the isles of Britannia observed the rites and rituals of apex Christianity, the old ways never truly died. Silent eyes filled with scorn and smouldering with a lust for vengeance watched as the men of the conflagrating cross[1] set fire to their woodland homes, incinerating a way of life that was as old as antiquity. Thousands of their number fell to their sword, and hundreds more watched helplessly as their families were forcibly removed from their protection to be indoctrinated in the ways of the new God. Later, the same chieftains whom the bearded men had weaned and brought to the forests for the first time drank together to a State born and bred in the black image of Christianity. When the old men died, they were not interred with reverence at the plot of their forefathers, but rather were cast out into the streets for the mongrels to feed upon. Theirs was a bitter and thin wine, and their evenings were filled with ingrained malice and silent conspiracies.
When the Chief Druid, Thyme Tamerlane, passed from this world, his bastard, Cecil, assumed a Roman name and led a faction of the Druid tradition into sycophantic subservience to the Roman juggernaut. Hundreds more perished. Pestilence after pestilence descended upon the heads of these worthy men, until almost all traces of their number were eradicated from the Earth. The few who remained held fast to the old ways remained patient throughout the centuries, as the great, lustful eye of human enterprise Romed elsewhere. Christendom had long since taken hold by this time, and Britannia, united under a High King, could no longer be appealed to on the basis of tribal sympathies.
After the inception of the Magna Carta[2], the Druids began to relish the idea of a new sort of factionalism. The higher House of Lords exercised what little influence there was to be had in legislative matters over the King in the midst of a fledgling, intemperate system. The House of Commons, though little more than a mob mentality consisting of a rural electorate, could be appealed to on the basis of rudimentary sympathy. Druids continued to persevere through a network of silent partners and old families. For a time, it seemed that there may yet be some vestiges of hope, and that social reform might yet be within grasp.
As was perhaps inevitable, the constant friction between King and electorate culminated in the English Civil War. For the first time since unification, Druid fought against Druid. There were some who sought to win favour with the deposed Charles I[3] by standing alongside him in battle, though the Cavaliers were soon cowed by Oliver Cromwell’s superior forces. Many Druids marched among the armed resistance in the defence of their families. The movement, already fractured beyond repair by centuries of clandestine networks, could not hope to resist the iron fist of Puritanism. All theatres, taverns, and other locales which had formerly been imperative to the recruiting of new allegiants to the Druidic cause were now closed. Puritanism, though not a widely popular ideology, had been brought about by the direct mandate of the people to govern themselves rather than by the ravening whims of a monarch, and so the cause was lacking in scapegoats. Anonymous desecrated graves continued to cry out from the ground, like the besmirched corpse of the First Brother. The ancient families mourned their lost brethren in silence. Many felt exiled within the confines of their own slums as they eked out a daily subsistence by selling their labour and bodies. The forests and great shrines of the ancient pagans, once filled with the sound of ancient hymns and rituals, were desolate and abandoned. Even after the Orange lord and his wife returned from abroad and social entertainments were permitted to thrive again, no one was receptive to the insistent whispers of Druids. Many had been disillusioned through decades of social repression, first under a voracious King and then under the unmoving ideology of an oppressive religious fanatic, so their appetite for reform was sated. Many of these men simply wished to live out the remainder of their lives nursing their scarred limbs and souls in peace.
Discouraged, the remainder of the Druids disbanded. Some returned to the great forests, in an effort to appease the wrath of their abandoned ancestors alone. Others resorted to the refuge of the smoking cities, and lost themselves in the absentia of social memory. Still others sought refuge under the Fleur Du Lis across the Channel, or migrated elsewhere across the European continent. Some of the more prominent ones were protected by wealthy benefactors, and allowed to rise to great renown in business or politics within England. Many of the Druidic faithful, however, had no identity to salvage. These unfortunates populated the Mayflower and the many ships which succeeded it, and emigrated to the Americas. These stern men and women had grown to despise the entirety of Great Britain, and imagined that they were leaving its people doomed to a listless perdition. They sought the forests of the frontier, never imagining that their sordid lots could be further pronounced by the very race that they had come to loathe.
The Druidic colonists were astounded upon their arrival to discover that there was an indigenous population there who, after overcoming its initial apprehensions and suspicions, was not merely tolerant but receptive towards Druidic traditions and beliefs. It was readily apparent to these settlers that their own doctrines were analogous to the religious allegiance of the locals. Many Druids enjoyed benign and pleasant relations with the Aboriginal tribes in the area. For the first time since leaving Plymouth, many of them believed that they had found a permanent port in the storm.
Then, the hay fever arrived from the European island. Degenerating urban conditions had greatly exacerbated sickness, and latent symptoms were concealed until long after colonist frigates had set sail. Though mortality rates were high among colonists, those with sufficient resources could purchase remedies. Aboriginal tribes in the area, however, were decimated. The White Man’s Sickness almost incited open revolution where years of sibilant missionary influence and imposed Catholicism never had. The Druids, meanwhile, had long accepted if never condoned the fact that the vengeful Christian God had followed them to the New World.
The British colonists appeased the wrath of the local tribal leaders with insidious fire water and muskets. In the meantime, the French and Spanish had become firmly entrenched in the Colonies, and were fiercely committed to their foreign interests as well. The Druids looked on with dismay as the British mainstreamed their trading practice. The other foreign powers followed suit. English trading posts engaged in commerce with Aboriginal runners and tribal factions, exchanging whiskey and muskets for furs, precious metals, and tracts of land. This practice continued in some cases for several generations, and alliances were established as a result. Many formerly proud Aboriginal factions became lackeys and proxies for their European masters. They were deployed against one another like expendable pawns on a chessboard. Those who actively resisted the European assimilation were quickly processed. The Druids looked on in fascinated horror as their sometime friends and allies turned against them, suspicious of their motives, even as their mutual cultural fabric was gradually eroded away by the Europeans.
It had readily become apparent to the Druids that their former brothers from the old world had exhausted their capacity to wage war there, and so had turned to a new arena. Abandoned on all sides and seeking a safe haven, many of that number retreated into the woodlands once again. Besieged by their own convictions, they remained there through the years, fasting away their propensity towards all human appetites. They lived as ethereal ascetics, inhabiting the rowan and willow groves like so many drops of dew shed as tears from their forsaken heaven. One by one, they dwindled away into clinical insanity. Some, appalled by the crimes of those who they considered brethren, exacted penance upon themselves by submitting their bodies to the forests. Often, the corpses were never cut down, so the ropes and skeletal remains were discovered among the thick foliage of that dismal part of the world in later years. Others ingratiated themselves to the European murderers, earning positions of trust and high esteem there. That was when the disappearances began. Though the plague still ravaged the settlements like a divine hand of malice, men, women, and children seemed to begin vanishing from their beds. Occasionally, corpses were found in the outskirts of the settlements, disfigured almost beyond recognition. Much of this savagery was attributed to the Aboriginals, and more innocent lives were taken. Milton’s ghastly manuscript[4] began to make its rounds, and was celebrated with all the jubilance of a wedding in a morgue.
Still more of the pagans remained cloistered away in their forest homes, living lives of nomadic uncertainty. They chastised themselves with elements of fire and wind, and faculties of language began to desert them. They began to resemble the lower orders of beasts rather than anything that was once human, practicing a counterintuitive experiment in social humility. Many of their number imagined themselves as one with the world around them, though most emphasized that the only true means of equality was exacted through death. So, they decayed with the forest. For some, this was the only true means of nihilism. Their spirits embodied the conscience of a generation of pragmatists, whose ancestors had witnessed the New World with welcoming eyes. These same men who had rejoiced in a new wilderness in which to reap their macabre harvests had practiced their craft on the ancestors of the men who now raced like untamed beasts of burden through the forests and upper echelons of political influence with equal bravado.


************


Now, they are mesmerized by the dusk like moths captivated by a flame. As a new day is consummated beneath the mountain canopy, hollow gazes follow its progress as emaciated hands linger upon the staves that have brought their owners this far. They occupy no state of physicality or spirituality known to man, but occupy the fringes of a sleeping world like the children of Hephaestus[5].
They greet death with the casual indifference of an old friend. Hospitality in these parts of the world is as cordial and as universally observed as the act of living. The screen doors are never locked. Neighbours are always prepared to greet a friend with a firm handshake and the latest tidings. This warm spirit is ingrained in the very tide of life itself. Death is bidden good morning with a smile and an open door as one final quagmire in a meridian of time unparalleled by the devising of all the Hosts.
So far as any story may begin and be cultivated, ours will be born and fermented to maturity near the great ale houses of Halifax, where the drink is cheap and the sighs seldom wasted. Like most tales of the supernatural worth recounting, this one begins in a cheap county inn, where the “no vacancy” sign is often used with great vigour (over the heads of drunken miscreants). There is a booth set aside for the tax collector, who often has business here and who prefers to regard the coffers of the world through the bottom of a tankard. Many of the bar’s former patrons are memorialized by placards on the back of bar stools, though the men and women who occupy these improvised graves seem to set little store by the fate of their predecessors. The bar itself is long and narrow, and may have seen better days. Cheap prints of maritime paintings line the walls, and an antiquated stag’s head hangs above the bar itself. There is a mounted television in the nearby vicinity, though it is turned off and scarcely visible due to the low light setting. The proprietor of this fine establishment has recently come out on the losing end of a hotly contended battle with the local hydro company, so every night is a candle-lit vigil now. Though smoking is prohibited in bars, one shortly becomes accustomed to the pungent odour of cigarette smoke. This inn, known to local residents as The Constantinople, was formerly a speakeasy during the tight lipped years of Prohibition. As a result, the police of today, much like their fathers and grandfathers before them, are often lenient around here.
Spirits are indulgent towards this place. These are some of the loneliest and psychologically forlorn people in the world, chronically prepared to forego their cognitive faculties for solstice in whatever hallucinogens that their welfare cheques may provide for them. Whiskey is often the beverage of choice, drunk neat and straight in startling quantities. On occasion, a particularly morose man who has imbibed his portion alone and is considering eliminating his own map will be joined by a jocose, translucent companion to pass the time with. Sometimes, men will wake up, disconcerted, in their lodgings after a night of heavy drinking, without the first inclination as to how they were returned to their proper home. Those who have indulged are prepared to forego their notions of reality and common sense in a way that few others are.
Billions have spoken and died in vain since the last of the Druids relinquished their holds upon the forests that they once held dear. The Christians who damned them rested smug in their convictions and flames until the day of their own presumed trials drew near, at which time their confessionals seemed to close in around them like a shroud. Now, there are plenty of red coats among the congregation of apparitions which humble the horizon.
It is 1994.


************

“Have any of you men seen my Harvey?” The woman’s inquiry, the twelfth of its kind over the last quarter hour, seemed to fall upon deaf ears. Cassandra (call me Cassie) Fields scoured the occupied bar stools for what seemed like the hundredth time, but her husband’s distinctive leather jacket and black hair were nowhere to be seen. She wrung her hands hysterically, a habit she had been trying to break since high school. Cassie had heard the phrase Tourette’s syndrome murmured behind her back more than once, and she bitterly resented the label.
Every Sunday of her 42 years, Cassie had attended Baptist services with a diligence that many older women in the community respected. Pastor Miguel was often fond of describing the act of faith as one perpetual journey throughout a never ending ocean of different wavelengths. As Christ Himself had been a fisherman, so, too, must we fish for the souls of men, always spreading the Good News at every possibility or none. Cassie did not know if his constant allusions to the sea had been due to his congregation’s proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, but she admired them nonetheless. Pastor Miguel had been fond of likening Christ to a lighthouse, and Satan to a rocky coast. Christ was the Light and the Way, and, though evil was often at the foundation of all that appeared good in the world and was every bit as ancient as the world itself, it was only as old as this place, and would be only so much vapour on Judgement Day. The rocks on the shore were a false port, Miguel thundered, and those who were drawn in by such avarice would be sure to perish in their own indemnities and roast in the flames. Cassie agreed with him wholeheartedly. As she looked around disparagingly, she knew that this place was just one more false port. How can Harvey associate with men like this?
Oh, she knew that he drank moderately on occasion, and she did not object to that much. Cassie herself had partaken liberally during her college years and for much of her twenties. Harvey seldom kept more than a bottle or two of liquor in the house, and even that much was mainly intended for special occasions. He had recently decided to join this ridiculous motorcycle circuit, however, and many of the other members were habitual drinkers. Cassie knew that her husband would never be foolish enough to go on the roads after drinking, but she doubted the judgement of many of the men who he insisted on riding with. The vast majority of them were coarse sailors, former hockey stars who let it go to flab after they hit their twenties.
Cassie was far from being optimistic to a fault, and she knew that many of these men probably saw her as an obnoxious mother hen. They were cut from the same mould as the men who had relentlessly attempted to court her back in the days when she had been regarded by the world at large as another blonde fruit ripe for the taking. She knew that the considerable age difference between herself and Harvey was a constant topic in the public forum. He had just turned 28, which meant that she was approximately 11 and a half years his senior.
She had been openly accused of robbing the cradle several times, though that was the least of the moral accusations which circulated regarding the improprieties of their marriage. Many people, Cassie’s own former friends numbering among them, seemed to believe that Harvey was something of a freeloader. Cassie did not know what his employment history had been, though she knew that he had held several jobs. These days, he was a freelance painter. Mainly, he painted landscapes, though she knew that he had also dabbled in the abstract on occasion. It was a private joke between them that he was a bathroom painter, because he often claimed self disparagingly that his was the type of work which consistently appeared in bathrooms. Sometimes, he would be gone for days or weeks at a time, investigating likely subjects for his canvas around the city. Cassie worked to support the both of them by operating a flower shop downtown that had been opened by her mother.
Her lips involuntarily twitched as she recalled the manner in which Harvey had proposed to her. He had purchased a bouquet of South African tulips from her mother’s shop after obtaining the old woman’s blessing, and had given to her that evening in her apartment after preparing a beautiful dinner for them both. When Cassie to fetch her best vase, she had found a beautiful golden band inside. Six months later, they were married. She had found the manner in which he had proposed to have been delightfully old fashioned at the time. Her mother had passed away due to a cerebral haemorrhage less than six months later, and Harvey could never know how much that gesture of his meant to her now. Though Cassie acknowledged the fact that there were certain discrepancies between the two of them which could be attributed to the age difference, she adored her husband all the more due to these differences. He always caused her to feel as though she were eighteen again, and just learning how to love.
Though the second Sexual Revolution had come and gone, there were still some women in the community who seemed to look upon her second marriage with consternation, as though she was not honouring the memory of her first husband. Gabriel’s sudden passing years before had been a shock, and Cassie still thought of him every day. He had always been a free spirit in a way that was unparalleled by anyone else she had ever known. Cassie had always been drawn to those sorts of men. She had met Gabriel back in her junior year of high school, and the two of them had been together until his death. In fact, though she kept few secrets from Harvey, Cassie could openly admit that she had never truly let him go. She visited his grave without fail every week, and left him a bouquet of flowers from the shop.
Still, at 42, men like Harvey certainly did not come along every day, and Cassie knew when she was well off. The companionship alone was wonderful at the worst of times. Nonetheless, Harvey’s habit of motocross racing was going to be the death of her. She was convinced that this was what the group of them were doing, out on the back roads. One of these days, her husband was going to get arrested, or worse. Still, she had long since convinced herself that men had a tendency to go through two crisis periods in life, much in the same way that women confronted the teenage and menopausal periods, respectively. There was, of course, the traditional “midlife crisis,” which seemed to have had its heyday at some point in the 1960s. Cassie’s own father had left her mother when Cassie was eight, though she remembered him as a younger man. The subject had seldom been broached in conversation while her mother was still alive.
Cassie was of the opinion that men also encountered a second crisis point, akin to the teenage equivalent in women. However, the masculine counterpart tended to happen slightly later, generally when the man was in his mid-twenties. At that point, most men were done with school, and were in the early stages of a career. Some of the more precocious ones had even started families, or were beginning to review long term retirement packages. Of course, this image of masculinity stood in stark contrast to the opposite end of the spectrum. Some men did nothing whatsoever to improve themselves since graduating from high school, if indeed they had made it that far. Both types of men encountered a period of self-scrutiny during that range of years. The more ambitious man might be struggling with questions of inertia and stability. He may wonder at length if he is truly content with his job, or whether he really does wish to marry his university sweetheart, or whether he should try and improve his credentials in such a way as to get a promotion with his firm and land on easy street. Most spend this critical period building the next step upon their foundations.
Of course, the less successful men experience an equally dire period of self scrutiny, though theirs is a much more fundamental evaluation of character. Most of them either start to implement radical changes, such as moving out of their mother’s basements and finding a long term job (the reconciliatory route), or they find a scapegoat or a cause of some kind, often with some sort of political affinity, and strive for some level of clarity.
Of course, some simply choose suicide. That was what had happened to Gabriel. Cassie attempted to avoid scrutinizing the finer points of his death in her mind. She had seen a cabal of grief counsellors and therapists after the fact, and they had worked over some of the finer points with her. They had certainly been very well rehearsed. There was a higher suicide rate per capita in Nova Scotia than anywhere else in the country.
Looking around the dim interior of The Constantinople, Cassie noticed that most of the men had gone back to their drinks. Her vision was obscured by smoke, and she was suddenly positive that there were no fire alarms in the building. The fire marshal would be likely to fine the proprietor heavily for that, were he remotely concerned and not a regular here.
This place was the last stand of the Dirty Thirties, a sanctum of repressed masculinity and misogyny which Cassie could acknowledge was just as imperative to the functioning of Halifax as any other community resource. This was the place where men could let down their hair, figuratively speaking. It harkened back to an era of camaraderie, of testosterone, of John Wayne movies, of Happy Hour marathons until the dawn. Better still, this era may never have existed, but the prospect of its existence appealed to the male love of déjà vu in a way that nothing else could match.
This was the venue where men could tell the jokes that would get them thrown out of any civilized gathering. It was a locale where any mention of a woman that did not involve an hour glass hand gesture and a lascivious joke was met with sympathetic slaps on the back and a round of beer on someone sympathetic. Cassie knew for a fact that illicit card gambling and bets on horse racing, among other things, were tolerated in here. She could only imagine what else that they got up to, and wondered how much of it was legal.
Above all else, this place engendered a sense of entitlement. Cassie knew that traditional expressions of masculinity were repressed these days, and the permissive atmosphere in here kept the clientele out of trouble, generally speaking. There had been a time when women were prohibited from coming in here altogether. Although that rule was no longer officially enforced, Cassie was convinced that she could cut the hostility in the air with a knife on the few occasions that she had occasion to visit. As she was modestly attractive even past the median of forty, Cassie was entirely convinced that this was the first heterosexual men’s bar (if there was one group whose presence in here was tolerated even less so than women, then it was the few openly gay men who were brazen enough to turn up), in which some simpering male had never once tried to buy her a drink.
The first couple of times that she had shown her face here, the entire establishment had gone silent. Most of the patrons had craned their necks to stare at her. The most courteous looks had been those of curious astonishment, though the majority had been sneers.
These men were brethren, baptised in a maelstrom of salt water ideals and working class heritage. Many of them spent their days on the harbours, trapping and fishing to earn a living. Though some had been educated at Dalhousie, the vast majority of their scholastically inclined compatriots had long since gravitated towards the urban centres of the west. Many of them looked as haggard and prematurely aged as their wives.
By this time, Cassie was standing beside one of The Constantinople’s three pool tables. A middle aged man was in the process of lining up a shot on the cue ball, and few of the fellows assembled there took any notice of her. Though a couple of them had looked up when Cassie spoke, her response wasn’t enough to elicit a response from any of them.
The circuit had been due back an hour ago. Cassie knew that she must be visibly disconcerted, but did her best to keep her composure.
“You want something?” This guttural growl had come from behind the bar. Cassie recoiled, astonished. The bartender, a burly heavyweight who looked to be in his late forties, was eyeballing her. She straightened up instinctively, and forced a smile.
“Pardon me?” The bartender cleared his throat, a sound strongly reminiscent of a regurgitating toilet.
“This ain’t a motel, lady. Be ordering, or be gone.” As Cassie ordered a Corona and moved to one of the bar stools, her mind continued to race. She pulled out the red Motorola cell phone that Harvey had given her for Christmas, and hastily checked the display. No messages. That could mean anything, she knew. There was a clear understanding between them that Harvey was always supposed to message her if he was running late. Perhaps there was no reception wherever he was.
Cassie scarcely paid any attention as someone took one of the vacant seats beside her. She was now frantically reviewing all of the possibilities. The police station? The hospital?...The morgue?
“Mrs. Fields?” For the second time in as many minutes, Cassie recoiled sharply. Her heart had already been racing, and she would have welcomed a nitro-glycerine tablet at the moment. She turned to discover a pleasant looking older gentleman smiling gently at her. He had a very benign, almost grandfatherly appearance about him, with clear cerulean eyes, closely cropped white hair, and a pair of spectacles perched jauntily upon his nose. The stranger extended his hand.
“My name is Roger Hastings. I believe that you know my wife, Judith? I’ve seen you at the United Baptist Church before. If I may say so, you have a very beautiful singing voice.” Cassie did recognize Rogers, now that she considered it at length. He often wore a moth-eaten flannel suit on Sundays which aged him by about ten years. Cassie returned the smile, and extended her hand for Hastings to shake, which he promptly did.
“It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Hastings. I haven’t seen Judith at church lately. Is she doing all right?” Roger smiled, displaying immaculate white teeth.
“I’m afraid she’s seen better days, my Judith. The radiologist over at the General is running some tests on her as we speak. We managed to fight it into remission last time, but I’m afraid that it may well be back with a vengeance. She’s been having some severe chest contractions and hypertension over the last few weeks. The prognosis doesn’t look very good at this point, I’m afraid, not very good at all.” Cassie nodded sympathetically. As though discerning her thoughts by her facial expressions, Hastings smiled ironically.
“It’s a silent killer, I’m afraid. I’m going to be on full time stress leave next week, to look after her full time. As it is, I just touched down in Halifax earlier today, and decided to stop by the old watering hole before heading home for the evening.” Anxious to steer the conversation away from convalescence and discord, Cassie hastily changed the subject.
“Where have you been?”
“I am returning from a faculty conference in Omaha. It is a lovely city, though mildly claustrophobic down there,” he replied. “I teach classes in Renaissance history at the university on occasion, you see, so it’s best for me to remain attuned to these things. A dear old friend of mine, a former colleague from Amherst, was the keynote speaker. He put me up at a hotel in the outskirts. It was a very pleasant few days, though I am pleased to be back at home.”
Cassie nodded, fascinated, and replied.
“You teach Renaissance history? That must be very interesting. I took several history courses myself, back in the day. How long have you been teaching?” Hastings shook his head, still smiling.
“I’m afraid that I do myself too much credit, my dear. I teach occasional courses, though I am not tenured. In fact, I’ve been retired for the last ten years, though I worked as an archaeologist for thirty years on excavation sites. I’ve written several discourses on reason surrounding the metaphysical transition from the ethereal to the pragmatic which occurred from the 16th until the 18th centuries, and was invited to join the Dalhousie history faculty after giving several seminars on my books. I may not return next semester, depending on Judith’s condition, though I will miss the classroom. It is like a second home to me. How about yourself, Mrs. Fields? What do you do for a living?” Cassie responded quickly.
“Please, call me Cassie. I’m a florist, over on Ventura.” Hastings nodded, and appeared intrigued.
“I have always enjoyed working with flowers and shrubbery, myself. As a young man, I spent a year backpacking across Europe, and once laboured in a greenhouse located off of the English Channel for six months. Those were some of the most pleasant days of my life. In fact, Halifax has always reminded me of the British coastline. The air in these parts is some of the best in the world, no question,” he said. The bartender returned with Cassie’s beer, and she laid down a five dollar bill on the counter. He grunted and counted out the change, which she pocketed. Grasping the bottle, she tentatively sipped at the cool beverage, and winced at the taste of the hops. Strictly speaking, Cassie was not supposed to drink alcohol, as it caused adverse effects when consumed while taking prescription medication. However, a Corona had been the first drink that popped into her head when the bartender had prompted her. It was what she had always drunk with Gabriel back in college. It had a decidedly foreign savour to it, though she was unaccustomed to drinking these days. She turned her attentions back to Hastings.
“You’ve written books on the Renaissance? How lovely. Which one should I read first?” Hastings chuckled.
“Actually, I wouldn’t recommend any of them. My old school friend, Oliver Newman, provided me with much of the research material. Published writers are far more likely to receive academic grants from the university, you see, and I’m afraid that there isn’t very much of a market for my material in these parts. Oh, I enjoyed writing the books well enough, but they were simply a means to an end, nothing more. I suppose that my heart wasn’t really in them. I assisted Mr. Newman with some investments many years ago now, and, when I mentioned that I was interested in publishing my material, he gave me what I needed before retiring.” Cassie found this vaguely amusing, but did not betray any signs of merriment. Her considerations were still focused on Harvey.
“So, what does pique your interest, Mr. Hastings?” Hastings smiled faintly again, and folded his arms over his chest.
“Roger, please. Actually, I’m interested in a very obscure branch of scholarship which, I’m afraid, does not command a great deal of respect in these parts. You see, I’m a lifelong enthusiast of the Druid legacy. Really, my career might have been much better served had I remained in the United Kingdom, where there remains a very enthusiastic series of organizations devoted to studying the history and structure of Druidic culture. In my younger years, I was a member of several teams which conducted excavations all throughout the British Isles, searching for remnants of the Druid civilization. This was twenty years after the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, you understand, and archaeology remained a thriving science in many parts of the world. Ever since, I’m afraid I have been obsessed with verifying what I believe to be a very unique thesis. Unfortunately, most of my colleagues would probably consider me mad if I expanded upon the full implications of it with them, my dear. Many people would probably consider it just as lacking in credibility as the dubious notion that some unknown variable assisted the Egyptians with building the great pyramids.” Cassie attempted to feign curiosity while trying to discretely check her cell phone under the bar. Five more minutes had passed, and there was still no word from Harvey. This man seemed harmless enough, if somewhat bland. She cleared her throat.
“I think that I’ve heard of the Druids before. Weren’t they mainly concentrated in Great Britain? They were heathens, weren’t they?” Hastings hesitated.
“Well, yes and no. They were a very sedentary group of tribal religious leaders who dominated theology in Britannia until shortly after the common era began, when traces of Roman influence gave Christianity its first foothold in Britain. The Druids were pagans, and their beliefs were mainly oriented around nature, particularly trees. They revered trees, and often built their temples inside of forests. Some Druidic settlements have been found around the Archipelagos, and some remnants of pottery and religious ornaments have been discovered in the great forests of the United Kingdom. Many Druidic priests were spiritual advisors to the early British Chieftains, and enjoyed a social status which would be considered extremely comfortable today. Many of them had multiple wives in different villages, as was a common practice during that time. In fact, many of them exercised a not inconsiderable influence in the day to day political activities of their given tribe. You see, most of the regional tribes were ruled by a king, with a council of legislative elders immediately beneath him. Most political affairs were determined by a rule of majority, though the king exercised direct veto power at all times in these assemblies. The Druid was often his personal advisor. Literacy rates were extremely low, and mortality rates were adversely high. This essentially meant that many Druids had a much more satisfactory education than their contemporaries, and would live to see multiple kings. As such, their influence in affairs of state was often equivalent to that of an older uncle on a younger monarch in the European feudal system.” He paused to motion to the bartender, who was preoccupied at the other end of the bar. Cassie, momentarily distracted, frowned.
“So, what happened? Were they uprooted by a middle class?” Hastings shook his head.
“No. You must understand that the Romans were never very particular about religion. They were not despots. As you may well know, prior to the heyday of Christianity, they acknowledged their own pantheon of gods which was comparable to the hierarchy of the Hellenic poli. Often, so long as a subjugated territory or formerly annexed province paid its taxes, the Caesars could not care less about what they called God. Really, it’s too bad that the British never learned from their example when expanding their own Empire. The triangle trade, deplorable though it was in of itself, might have gone a good deal more smoothly if the British missionaries had not insisted upon eradicating the local traditions in favour of Christianity. But, back to the Romans. Though most territories did indeed uphold their own cultural framework, mandatory conscription instated by the Roman Empire recruited countless young men into their national military force. Often, this resulted in ingrained Roman sensibilities. So, while Rome never attempted to directly influence foreign civilian affairs, you can imagine how these radical new ideas influenced society from the ground up. Former Roman veterans assumed positions of considerable influence upon secular matters. The Druids began to sense that their own status in society was challenged, though this was not an overly contentious issue until about 300 CE. By that time, Christianity was emerging as a much more centralized religious structure. Of course, we all know how the Catholics accomplished their ends. For instance, during that same time period, women were seen as inferior to men in matters of state, but their role in the household was preeminent. Many women were renowned for their proficiencies with herbs and other medicines. Catholic influence changed all of that. You see, women ultimately challenged the dogma of the Church, and propaganda over the course of generations effectively labelled them as chattel, and set the stage for the witch hunts centuries later. Women were a rather latent influence on the Church, and correspondences traced back to that time relate that most bishops considered them an external threat. However, their response to the Druids was emphatic in its vehemence. They were seen as dissidents, and many were consequently purged. At first, this was done under some pretext, though popular sentiment quickly turned on the old ways.” Cassie swallowed another sip of beer. The alcohol had not begun to influence her perceptions, though her peripheral vision took in the dissonance of the shadows and illumination which created a mosaic of fluid motion. Her eyes moved almost imperceptibly across the features of Hastings, who had leaned forward slightly. Though his kindly features were illuminated clearly in the smoke and amorphous light setting, she felt an inexplicable terror race through her, one which ignited her fear in a way that little else could. The hairs on her neck seemed to be standing on end, and she felt perspiration dampening her skin. Somehow, she felt riveted in place by undercurrents of passion which stood in aversion to all sensibilities. It was as though a stem of ice had all at once disintegrated around her spine, dispersing rivulets of sweat like some relentless arteries of rivers bound for a great ocean, a broken heart eroded away by a million tides before the natural causes of a desolate world could exterminate it. A thousand memories crept unbidden into her mind. Her lips had gone dry, though she managed to articulate the necessary question.
“What happened to them?” She was mesmerized by his gaze, drawn in by some insidious faculty which threatened to overwhelm the thin network of cognition which governed her humanity. This was a carnal fear, a terror bordering on possession, and Cassie suddenly felt as though her soul had been captivated, marginalized by a decaying fabric. She saw through the gauze, and wished to know these sensations. She was abruptly a child once more, calling to account the dimensions of finite reality. The rabbit gazed back at her, probing the fundamental depths of her soul, appraising her. This was a solvent purity which she could not begin to grasp. It was far more than jubilation, or any narcotic high, or sexual elation. It was the epitome of all humanity, if such a feeling may be called innately human at all. It was as though some jaded symmetry of the human condition was communicating a tempestuous secret to her inflamed mind, one which, if revealed, would decimate and upend the identity that she treasured. God help me...
“A worthy question. Well, history tells us that the Druids were scattered among the English gentry and wilderness. Many went on to live as nomads and hermits, practicing their traditions and rites in dignified silence. Others ravened for blood. The Druids were not a pacifist order, by any means. Social norms of the day dictated that integrity of one’s own person was at the forefront of all virtues. Some challenged the lordlings who repressed them in solitary combat. Many of these worthies succeeded in their task. All were silenced. Others knew no moderation of the sword. They slaughtered men, women, and children, any and all who were associated with the Catholic hordes. Many of the slayings were done by night, and the corpses were, to a person, impaled through the heart with stakes shaped like crosses. Though many of the ancient vampire myths are associated with Transylvania, the fact is that many of these stories originated and were popularly disseminated among the Britons sometime around the third century CE. The irony of it all is that none of the deaths could be directly accredited to the Druids, as the Catholic Church had officially disbanded the order, and any proclamation to that effect would have discredited the institution during a period of what was already tremendous political instability in a volatile region. So, it is impossible to know precisely how many of these people were killed directly by Druids or their sympathizers. Conservative estimates are in the range of several hundred.” Looking at Cassie’s stricken face, Hasting’s features discernibly softened. “Of course, not all Druids chose this path. Many others ingratiated themselves with former allies, and carried on in much the same way that they had before. It stands to reason that many of the men of power under the new regime had grown up under a regime fostered by Druid influence. Many of them were political affiliates, or at least landowners of some renown. Many of their fathers had once hired Druids as tutors for their children, and these grown sons went on to heed the advice of their former instructors in an advisory capacity. In fact, I spent many years studying the life of Hubric Cheshire, a personal aide to the Duke of Lancaster, who I am almost positive was associated in some way with the movement. I suppose that you are familiar with the Arthurian legends?” Cassie, caught by surprise, nodded, and Hasting smiled triumphantly. “One account of the story...many corroborating accounts, in fact, claim that the great wizard, Merlin, was in fact a Druid. Of course, this has only allegorical credibility as a work of historiography in the first place, though, if it has any credibility whatsoever, then it is certainly possible that, whatever else Merlin might have been, is highly likely that he was a Druid.”
Hasting spread his arms. “Of course, this brings us to my theory. The unfortunate truth is that no one wants to assume any accountability for the Druids. They are widely seen in the academic community as a historical curiosity, as the humble and perhaps unavoidable foundations of one of the greatest nation states that the world has ever seen. The British people betrayed, murdered, and exiled them, so any sort of extensive study must almost always be undertaken under private funding. This is just more ramification of the genocide that has taken place in our century. We have all evaluated the question of German Guilt under a misanthropic lens for the last half century. Most nations are reluctant to begin examining the skeletons in their own closets. Much private research is tolerated on the grounds of academia and freedom of information, though we seldom encounter any assistance from UK nationals living in and around the sites, let alone their government. The Catholic Church, of course, denies that the Druids ever existed as anything other than a hiccough in time. So, we must ask ourselves, what must be done by a class of people confronting imminent eradication, the ones with no social connections and no propensity towards an ascetic or nihilistic lifestyle?”
Cassie remained silent, quietly grasping for some semblance of meaning in the cyclical thoughts which were ravaging her mind. She felt violated, infringed upon some way that was beyond the faculty of her mind to comprehend, like an innocent suspect wrongly convicted in a world with no innate virtue to begin with. Something ignominious had settled inside of her, something festering, a succubus which threatened to overwhelm her senses like an oblique tumour. The word seemed to escape her of its own accord, though she knew whether or not it was an ingrained instinct structured around the survival imperative.
“Run,” she said. The flesh around Hasting’s eyes crinkled as he smiled.
“Indeed. But where? Mainland Europe would have surely been just as much of an inhospitable climate politically as the island. It is possible that some of their number may have fled for amnesty in Switzerland. However, I have a better idea. Call it a whim in a hall with no doors, or an absurd shot in the dark. What was the popular notion for persecuted classes living in London at the time? Quakers, Jewry, any non-Abrahamic faith, Protestants or Catholics depending on the flavour of the week, atheists, men of reason? Where might they bring their families?” He answered himself candidly. “Why, they would have gone to the New World, of course. After 1600, land grants from the Crown represented an opportune means for social undesirables to pursue a fresh start. The frontier, full of unblemished forests and wilderness, was a magnificent chance. I believe that there were once Druidic settlements in and around what is now New England, and that some of their number migrated still further north. In fact, it was for that very reason that I moved to Halifax in the first place, many years ago now.” Cassie acknowledged this without thinking. Her head was spinning, and she suspected for a moment that she was going to faint. Abruptly, a most welcome sound reached her ears. It sounded as though several decelerating engines were approaching the bar. They grumbled in a resigned way, as though accustomed to the sweat and tears of their owners. Hastings nodded understandingly.
“A motorcycle widow, I see. I wouldn’t worry, my dear. There was a time when I myself enjoyed nothing more than motoring through the countryside on my old Suzuki. It is a far safer recreation than most people think.” Cassie gave him a strained smile, though she was already moving for the door.
“Thank you, Mr. Hastings, I’m sure. It’s been nice talking to you.” As she approached the door of the bar, she recollected his wife’s condition, and turned to offer some words of best tidings. However, she frowned. Hastings was nowhere to be seen.


************

Cassie emerged into the mild Halifax dusk just as the last of the bikes were pulling into the Constantinople’s parking lot. It was a warm May evening, right on the cusp of summer. The riders used a motley collection of vehicles which differed as radically as the ages and backgrounds of their owners. Several of them were retired family men, grizzled in their countenances and attempting to recapture the blood and vinegar of their youth. Those were the men with filtered cigarettes in their back pockets. Of course, there were younger men and their wives as well, many of them orbiting the ambiguous milestone of thirty. Within five years, many of them would have sold this final lingering element of their youthful beginnings in favour of a crib and a bassinet. Others among their number were career bachelors, with faded tattoos on their biceps and parole papers in the pockets of their smoking jackets. Most of them shit in the bushes, and improvised toilet paper was always welcome. These were the men who, in another time and place, might have ogled her, though Cassie knew that none of them dared to be so precocious as to approach Harvey Field’s girl. Several of them gazed at her as they pulled in, and she could discern the barely disguised pity and contempt as it radiated from their eyes. They were no more comfortable with having her here than their counterparts inside were.
However, Cassie only had eyes for one of the bikers, who was in the process of dismounting from the rear seat of one of the other men’s bikes. Removing his helmet, he jogged towards her, a lopsided grin across his face. Harvey was of modest height, and, although young still, his shaved head gave him a modestly refined appearance. He swept her into his arms, and she squealed as he lifted her clean off of the ground, spinning her around before depositing her back on her feet. He moved towards her to plant a kiss on her lips, but she resisted him, pushing him away with her arms gently. She searched his eyes with her own, wishing to lose herself in those twin oceans, even as she savoured his smell. Though Cassie religiously detested everything to do with motorcycling, she loved that odour. She could smell the faint traces of mildew which clung to his authentic leather jacket, accentuating the bold aromas of treated cow hide and diesel fuel. Though some men might have objected to their wives coming to this place, even resented it to the point of obstinacy, Cassie knew how her presence here conferred a sense of the illustriously forbidden.
Oh, she was sure that Harvey took the brunt of some good-natured ribbing from his friends about it, but she knew how much that her presence excited him. They both enjoyed the clandestine, the expressly forbidden. Some evenings, when Cassie was closing down the store, lost among the endless cycles of tabulation and accounting, he would arrive when she least expected him, she would turn the lights down, and...Cassie’s mind was practically overwhelmed as she mentally reminisced about their last encounter. Her nerve endings were flooded as he held her, and she unconsciously understood that here, now, her presence was tantamount to a taboo indulgence for him. Despite his relative youth and the reclusive nature of his work, other men looked up to him, respected him in a way that was truly unique. He was like a brother to all of them. At least half of the men present probably owed him money. His door was always open to them whenever someone needed a reference, or a confidante, or someone to bail them out of jail. Though he was easily one of the youngest of their number, Cassie knew that the others looked up to him. He seldom exercised this hallmark of power. Any other man, in his position, would have been ridiculed and possibly even openly scorned by his fellows. Any evidence of sentimentality in a public place, even towards a wife or girlfriend, was treated as some alien concept in this place. However, in her case, Harvey’s compatriots turned a blind eye. One of them honked a horn at them, and Cassie almost jumped out of her skin. Harvey laughed and turned around.
“Hey, Frank, take it easy, will ya? I’m spending some quality time with my girl.” Cassie felt herself blush from the roots of her hair all the way down her pristine face. The offender, Frank, clad in a scarlet helmet with the visor down and a leather jacket of his own, raised his hands in mock surrender as the assembly guffawed. Cassie would have resented the endearment ‘my girl’ if it had come from anyone else, but never from Harvey. One of her earlier high school boyfriends had used that name on her once, and she had given him a solid wakeup call in the groin which had given him the pervert’s stagger for a week. When Harvey used it, though, it resounded with her in a way that nothing else could have.
Oh, he was prone to mistakes in the bedroom sometimes, as younger men were susceptible to. Cassie found these to be desirable in of themselves rather than clumsy. Several of the older men who she had dated since Harvey’s death had been so sure of themselves that sex had been reduced to a mechanical certainty as they eased her through her paces. She would climax eventually under expert manipulation, certainly, but it was a physical convulsion exclusively rather than the sort of euphoria which penetrated the senses and voided all else save the maddening waves of complementary psychological pleasure. His few shortcomings in the bedroom heightened her sense of euphoria rather than diminish them; he was trying so desperately to please her that the bittersweet irony of it all caused her to lose herself. Depending on her point of view on a given day, his increasingly fewer mistakes could either be a good or a bad thing. Either way, he could still make her scream like a cat in heat.
Harvey’s specialty was a spontaneous quickie from behind when she was engaged in a suitable diversion. They were often caught short while doing the dishes, for instance. Though Cassie knew that many women detested this position, due to the fact that they feared their men’s minds were wandering during the act itself from the source of their pleasure, and though she knew that, as an older woman, it would stand to reason that she should have to work all the harder to please him, this was never the case. Back in the anonymous valleys of her youth, Cassie had often capitalized on this position to give boys what they wanted. In the meantime, she could fantasize that the one pleasuring her was a famous movie star or singer rather than a pockmarked teenager with acne on his ass and underwear around his knees.
These days, the act was one of a euphoric, ambiguous ecstasy. It was as though her own shadow was making love to her. Whenever they had finished, Cassie would turn around, and, when she saw who it was standing there, with his Rambo features and raised eyebrows, she would climax again in quick succession as he continued to stimulate her relentlessly. Smoothing down their clothes afterwards and pretending that nothing had happened was almost as gratifying as the sex itself.
Of course, they had experienced some more...colourful scenes. When they had been only recently married, Cassie had once been overcome while taking in one of Harvey’s paintings, which had been lying horizontally on the floor upon a canvas. It had been a life size caricature of one of the most beautiful women that she had ever seen. They had ended up rolling around on the still-wet paint for a quarter of an hour. When they were finished, Cassie had looked on, horrified, at the permanently disfigured and smeared painting, expecting Harvey to be upset with her.
“Where is it?” she had asked at the time. “Where is your painting?” She had been so overcome, not to mention covered head to toe in primary coloured watercolour paint, that her faculties had temporarily deserted her. However, Harvey had simply smiled, turned her over on her back, and kissed her deeply for several moments. When he had finished, he looked firmly into her eyes, and he would never forget what he had told her then.
“There she is.” The two of them had referred to the act as their threesome afterwards as a private joke, though Cassie had never forgotten those words. They were far more firmly ingrained in her than their more conventional three word equivalent ever could have been.
Of course, they led their own private lives, as well. For the intents and purposes of public candour, Cassie Fields appeared every bit as chaste as the old spinstresses who populated the pews of the United Baptist Church every Sunday. She had tried to bring Harvey with her to services a couple of times, but always blushed like a schoolgirl whenever he told her precisely what he wanted to do with her over the altar. So, she attended services alone, which ingratiated her to the other women as a female whose husband was an incorrigible heathen. She provided an ever abundant flow of gossip, and as such was greatly appreciated.
Now, she gazed at her husband chidingly.
“Where is your bike?” He shrugged.
“Back on the highway a ways. I blew a flat six kilometres out of Digby, so I shotgunned it with Kory back there. I figured you’d be worried, sweetie.” He turned around and gave a stiff wave to the driver of the bike whose mount he had ridden into the lot on. “We waited around for a tow truck for the better part of an hour, but it never showed, so we left a couple of guys who live in the area with it. I’ll swing by the body shop over there tomorrow sometime to get it checked out.” He looped a thick arm that had no right belonging to a painter around her waist, and pulled her close. “Now, shouldn’t we get back to the house? I’ve been feeling oddly inspired all night.” She made a face at him.
“Don’t you start getting any delusions of grandeur, mister. You’re in my bad books right now. I had to spend the last twenty minutes listening to a sermon about the Druidic migrations.” She meant to divulge more about the disconcerting effect that Hasting’s presence had exacted upon her.
“I met a man from church in there,” she said distractedly, gesturing with an offhanded motion towards the Constantinople. “His wife is in the hospital up the way. They think it’s cancer. We should bring them a basket of something.” Harvey pulled a pack of Belmonts from their customary place in his left jacket pocket, and ignited one of them with a lighter. He shrugged as the smoke partly obscured his head, dissipating in the waning evening air around them.
“Let’s talk about it in the car, hon.” He waved once more to the other bikers, acknowledging them individually. “Good night, you bastards!” Cassie said good night, as well, and her effort was met with a lackadaisical chorus.
The husband and wife moved across the parking lot, leaving footprints in the tightly packed dirt. There was the faintest insinuation of a wind which created small dust storms in the obscured areas of the lot. Parked cars, mainly Fords and Hondas, cast unobtrusive silhouettes over the spectacle. Cassie, who had been raised on home cooked meals and nurtured under a spirit of homely solidarity, found the pungent aroma of fast food from surrounding restaurants to be almost profane. It seemed to imply an undercurrent of mercenary capitalism which contravened everything that a life in the bosom of Nova Scotia stood for. Now, with the suburbs threatening to overwhelm the surrounding rural regions like God’s mighty flood eroding away at the natural cliffs of the world, Cassie wondered if the tranquility of this place had ever truly stood for anything at all.
The dust storms seemed to congeal further as the wind picked up, leaving a faint residue of earth on her clothes. Cassie was faintly incensed at this, though Harvey laughed and ignored it altogether. She gazed fondly at the faded blue Levi’s jeans that he was wearing, similar in so many ways to those of her father. They were atypical working man’s clothes, though there were no characteristic holes in the knees or permanent stains to make their owner conspicuous as a rabble-rouser. Cassie imagined scuffed jeans to represent some aspect of the totality of masculinity. Men (and women) who wore such clothes did so as a way to appear worldly, as attuned to the perpetual tribulations of a world hell bent upon suffocating itself within a cocoon of contradictions under a veneer of hedonistic self interest and over indulgence. Being worldly was somehow considered tantamount to experience in the ways of the land, and, by contingency, those associated with it masters of their own fates. Any pretence of humility associated with jeans had long since gone out the window. Cassie acknowledged them to be characteristic of her own past. Besides, the particles of earth now clinging to them signified a great deal to her.
As Cassie dwelled upon these thoughts, she and Harvey walked across sediment which was thousands of years old. Its tremendous longevity was paralleled only by the low esteem in which humanity holds time. History, to Cassie, at least, was a word in a textbook. Youth, so far as she was concerned, was the universal inertia of mankind. Though age had enveloped many of the women whom she had long since gone to school with, Cassie’s impartiality towards such a concept of aging was mirrored by her grandiose faith. As Harvey slipped his left hand into the back pocket of her pants, such distracting thoughts evaded her mind altogether. She returned the favour, and the two of them ambled along contentedly through the malignant air of the urbanized Halifax.
Factories stood as silent and colossal spectres about the city, encompassed in shadow and obstructing the horizon as sentinels over the denizens of a new world. Traffic moved through the congested lanes like saturated plaque congesting the arteries of what had formerly been a great spirit. Transparent exhaust was expelled into the sky, dissipating there like the condemned souls of a race of men who had forsaken heaven in favour of a secular utopia. Beneath the great city, sewage ebbed and flowed through a labyrinth worthy of a Gustav Meyrink epiphany. Refuse existed in of itself as a contaminant, not a source of renewal. Somewhere in the receding cultural framework, poets dreamed quiet dreams among the bastion of a former self. Children played in the deserted attics and basements like closeted lunatics, while the “caution” signs reflected light as impressive paragons on the streets. Somewhere in the bowels of the metropolis, a 36 year old father of three perished among smashed cartons of milk underneath the garish fluorescent bulbs of a local supermarket, simply one more expiry date upon the subdued pantomime of human livelihood. At precisely this same time, a pigeon was struck by a car going approximately five miles over the speed limit. The desiccated carcass lay prone in the street while its mate sang a melancholy lament. Trees festered and rotted among the domesticated local park, where a lone woman was walking as she contemplated how best to even the score with that Two Timing Needle Dick Son Of A Bitch. An alcoholic priest masturbated in the privacy of his own home, and hoped that God saved a special place in hell for peeping Toms. A woman who thought that she was Aunt Jemima lost her soapbox. An engagement ring thought missing by its owner washed up on the encrusted shores of the Halifax harbour, and was found by a vagrant. Time ceased to exist at the pivotal moment of sunset as anything extraneous from a useless conjecture. While night fell over the city and the neon illuminated a thriving carcass, the whiskey began to pour. Raucous songs echoes from the pubs, and drifted skyward to be lost among the polluted vapours of a bygone altar.
Cassie Fields scuffed one Nike shoe in the dirt as she and Harvey continued to move in synchronization with one another. Though Cassie’s Ford Escalade might have been mistaken for a deteriorated family jalopy, it was a practical vehicle of a platinum colour which always smelled like mint patties or evergreen delight, depending on her temperament. She neatly disengaged the lock, and Harvey climbed in the passenger seat. Cassie got behind the wheel and placed her keys in the ignition. The engine whined to life with a cacophonic retort, and she edged the car out of the narrow lot and onto the boulevard.
“I met a man from church in there tonight,” she said casually. Harvey glanced at her, clearly amused.
“Men of the cloth are in for the whole socialite extravaganza? Do mine ears deceive me?” Cassie rolled her eyes.
“Why didn’t you call? I was terrified about you. Becky Trevor was telling me earlier in the supermarket that there have been half a dozen motorcycle fatalities out on the back roads over these last couple of months.” There was a faint hairline crack through the windshield, the result of a hailstorm from the previous winter. Dead insects were scattered upon it here and there. Traffic on the roads was surprisingly light for a Friday evening, and Cassie took the opportunity to accelerate. Beside her, Harvey raised his eyebrows.
“Someone is venting some repressed anger tonight,” he remarked. Cassie grinned at him.
“I’m a speed demon. You know that.” He chuckled lightly. The sun had just begun to descend into the foothills, casting long shadows across the road. Cassie changed lanes.
“Is your mother still coming out this Saturday for brunch?” Harvey shrugged expressively.
“She hasn’t called me,” he said. Cassie silently breathed a sigh of relief. She couldn’t tolerate that woman. Every conversation turned into a minefield of conjectures and accusations. Mrs. Fields, a radically successful businesswoman in the world of finance, seemed to resent the fact that her son was married to a woman who had what she considered to be lukewarm ambitions. She anticipated their monthly meetings with what could only be defined as lukewarm malice. Among other things, the elder Mrs. Fields resented the fact that Cassie had been in a previous marriage, and had once been so audacious as to say so to her face. There was also the question of no children, a double standard which she, Cassie, felt was marginally unfair. Her mother-in-law was occasionally fond of trumpeting the fact that she had thrived in the relentless office atmosphere of the 1970s while still raising three successful children. She also seemed to object to the way that Cassie dressed (“the occasional skirt wouldn’t go amiss on you, my dear, I’m sure.”) Cassie’s hands whitened as she gripped the wheel at the mere memory. Though ordinarily not a belligerent person, she often found herself fantasizing about surgically implanting seismic repulsor jets into the old woman’s skull and igniting them when she least expected it. Imagining the sight of the severed head parting company with the woman’s shoulders and imploding in the stratosphere was a welcome sight indeed. She would continue to bitch all the way up, Cassie felt sure. Harvey poked her lightly in the side, grinning.
“Thinking about my dear old mother?” She shot him a dirty look.
“We need a new tablecloth. Your mom probably won’t want to see what happened to her prospective grandchildren. Of all the times to be premature.” He laughed raucously, and Cassie had turned to smile at him as something moved from the corner of her eye. She instinctively jammed on the brakes, her neck jerked forward with the recoil, and her forehead almost impacted the dashboard as a result. One of Halifax’s sanitation trucks had just pulled out in front of them, and she had missed rear ending it by the narrowest of margins.
All of the blood had drained from Cassie’s face. She sat there for a moment, staring straight ahead, breathing heavily. Death is a consortium of discrete subtleties, of innocent moments. When confronting such a morbid paradox, one may either abandon ship completely and take up residence with the men in the white coats, or laugh until the capsized world turns right side up again. Cassie immediately broke out into screaming laughter, throwing her head back and baying at the moon. Passerby might have suspected that she was in mortal peril. The only reason apparent in the world was that of absurdity. When she was finished, Cassie lay back in her seat, exhausted, letting out a strangled chuckle every now and again. Harvey was looking at her bemusedly while playing with the window opener. She drove at a snail’s pace all the way home.
45 minutes later, the car pulled into a gravel driveway. The Fields lived in a refurbished farmhouse on the outskirts of the city, a habitually desolate place without a solitary neighbour for three miles. Tall grass grew in abundance in the surrounding fields, and rolling foothills were visible against the horizon in the distance. The steep awning on the house had been clearly derived from Victorian influences, and immaculate windows stared out at the countryside like the desolate countenance of disappointed lovers. Peat moss lined the rocks like the interminable influence of some forlorn afterthought of civilization upon a forlorn wilderness. Somewhere in the distance, crickets chirped laments as the final afterthoughts of dusk were vanquished by the eminent moon. The only visitor to this part of the world was the occasional stray horse from a distant farm. If her life had depended on it, Cassie could not have said with certainty that the home had functioning locks. She had never used them.
A light rain began to fall as the pair exited the car and headed for the house. Harvey paused to light another cigarette and study the dwindling horizon. Thunderheads dominated the skyline like vaults of the deceased, accumulating interest on the tempestuous sorrow of the fallen generations. He turned back to his wife, grinding the embers of the cigarette butt underneath his left shoe as he jammed his hands into his pockets. Cassie was leaning on the car and staring at him reprovingly.
“Those things killed my mother in this very house. You like to tempt fate, don’t you?” Harvey smirked at her.
“Please, ma’am, may I have another?” The cigarette, reduced to a charred stub, was saturated in thinly veiled moments by the rain. In no time, the thin misting had escalated to a torrential downpour, and Cassie had to raise her voice to be heard above the sound of water on the tin roof.
“Do you think that the Charlestons still plan on coming out in this? I wouldn’t want to be on the roads.” Cynthia Charleston had been a former roommate of Cassie’s during her first two years in university. Though Cassie had left without graduating following the death of her mother in 1974, Cynthia had gone on to study foreign affairs in the United States before coming back to Halifax. She now did something for the Office of Sanitation, though Cassie was unsure what the specifics of her job involved. Her husband did something lucrative with computers, though she could not have said exactly what.
Cassie reached into her pocket to replace the car keys. However, her eyes abruptly widened as she noticed that a familiar bulge was missing.
“Oh, shit...shit...” Harvey was scrutinizing her closely while chewing his lower lip. It was a nervous habit that he had picked up years earlier, and Cassie meant it knew that he was craving nicotine.
“What’s the story, morning glory?” His eyes twinkled, though Cassie was in no spirits to laugh at his allusion to the British pop song that they both loved. She faced him grimly.
“My wallet. I must have left it in the bar. You all arrived so quickly, and I was so anxious to get away, that I completely forgot to pick it up. It’s still there. Shit, shit, shit...” Furious at herself, Cassie turned around and kicked one of the Escalade’s tires as hard as she could. To her horror, a puncture appeared, and all of the air immediately deflated all out of it with a flatulent hiss. She stood there aghast, hands on her hips, exasperated beyond all articulation. She knew without even sparing him an importune glance that Harvey was most likely struggling not to laugh, and she wanted to deck him.
“It must be the rough roads,” he said casually. “I’ve been saying it for years. We aren’t the first people to have bad luck with tires around here. First my bike, and now your car...well, that’s the luck of the draw, isn’t it? I’ve been nursing a couple of spares in the shed for months now, just waiting to haul them out to celebrate an occasion like this.” She glanced at him witheringly.
“Oh, Harvey, you didn’t.” He was smirking at her now, though Cassie felt as empty all of a sudden as the lagging mess of rubber at her feet. “That must have put us back...how much? I thought that you put our rebate in the bank. What about Casablanca next summer?” He shrugged.
“I’m not complaining now. Well, there’s nothing else for it, I guess. Give me ten minutes, and I’ll have that all cleared up and ready to go. Then, I can go back into town and see what I can do about your disappearing wallet, okay?” Cassie shook her head.
“Don’t bother. The Charlestons are going to be here in less than an hour, if that. We don’t have time, and it’s probably long gone by now, anyway,” she retorted. Harvey grinned.
“Time is money, darling. I’ll hit the road, and be back before you know I’m gone. You looked flustered all the way home, and it was all my fault to begin with. Besides, we both know that I married you for your money. Where would I be without the cloying aroma of bills to sleep beside at night? What do you think?” Cassie gave him a face of thunderous solemnity.
“I think that I’m in love.” Before she knew it, he was kissing her as the rain assailed both of them. Cassie felt a very different type of moisture inside of her clothes that had nothing to do with the rain. After realizing this epiphany, she gently eased herself away.
“Not now, honey, not here,” she said. “We need to hurry. How long will it take you to repair that tire?” He frowned.
“Ten minutes, tops. I should be back here within the hour. I’ll be shooting for the rugged stranger look. Sure, it’s a bit risqué, but we’re pioneers.” He swatted her bottom, and she squeaked. “I’ll be back in an hour. You’re in charge, darling.” She stuck her tongue out at him.
“Just stay safe,” she said. “Drive slowly, for Christ’s sakes.” He raised his hand in the Boy Scout oath and pecked her on the lips again.
“Mum’s the word. I’ll see you in an hour, sweetheart.” He turned around, and trudged towards the shed. Cassie kept her eyes on his retreating back for a moment, and then headed to the house, raising one palm to her forehead in an effort to keep the rain out of her eyes. This was principally in vain, as she was soaked from head to toe by that point anyway. She could smell the sweet odour of the saturated earth as she made her way towards the front door. The flower beds were being inundated with water from the storm drain by the window trellis, and Cassie hoped that her geraniums wouldn’t drown in the downpour. She was a devoted gardener at the worst of times, and often brought unpurchased flowers from the shop out here. Cassie had hoped that Cynthia would have the chance to see her magnificent garden, but her hopes had sunk like the heads of her geraniums.
Cassie could openly admit that she was covetous of the other woman. They had lost touch since college, and had only re-established contact due to a chance meeting downtown several months earlier. Now, they got together for luncheons at least once a week. Certainly, Cassie was conscious of her many blessings; a wonderful home in a beautiful part of the country (albeit inherited from her mother), a loving husband, and a steady job. Be that as it may, Cassie shuddered with envy whenever she considered the harvest that her old friend had reaped in the world.
Although she and Harold lived modestly out of a condominium in the city, Cassie knew that the other woman must have a vast cache of savings. Her job, based on what information she had shared with Cassie, was comfortable enough. Cynthia had never divulged exactly how much she made per annum, though it was surely far more than Cassie’s modest yield from far more challenging work. Certainly, Cassie enjoyed her job; there could be no doubt about that. However, from time to time, she remembered that her own grades in university hadn’t been half bad. Oh, they certainly weren’t world class by Ivy League standards, but they had certainly been at least as good as Cynthia’s. In a way that she was only partly aware of on a conscious level, she felt abjectly swindled.
Of course, by the time that she had left university at the end of her second year, Cassie was engaged to Gabriel. They had been sweethearts since shortly after their first meeting in high school. He had been two years her senior, and had proposed to her at the end of term shortly after accepting his first full-time position with the government. At the time, he had been stationed to move away to Ottawa for six months, and the two of them wanted to take things to the next level before he left. Of course, her mother’s unexpected funeral expenses on top of the wedding ceremony had practically bankrupted them both, and Cassie had not been able to afford a return to school. Although she imagined that it was cruel of her to think so, Cassie knew that Cynthia needed a cleanup on aisle 4 in the looks department. She was no hag, but Cassie was cognisant of the fact that she herself was far more conventionally attractive than her friend ever dreamed of being, with her classic golden looks and healthy metabolism. If nothing else, she far outstripped Cynthia in waist sizes. Certainly, her educated friend might have a cute nose and a habit of tilting her head at opportune moments in a way that appealed to men, but that didn’t prevent her from being a gargantuan blimp. Besides, that was all a moot point now. Cassie had indisputably aged better than her former schoolmate, and that was all that mattered.
Back during their school days, Cassie was positive that Cynthia had been jealous of her own situation. After all, at the time, the other girl had never once been asked out by a man in her entire life, and there she herself was, practically married! It was a situation warranting tremendous compassion and sympathy, and, though she was as tactful as she could possibly be about it (Cassie had offered her a position as a bridesmaid at the wedding, though the other girl had respectfully declined), there were only certain allowances that could be made in the direction of assuaging those sorts of pangs of the heart. Cassie was certain that Cynthia held a certain type of youthful chagrin against her to this day, and those barbs went the deepest. They had not parted on friendly terms when Cassie had left the university, and Cassie remained uncertain as to why Cynthia seemed so intent upon nurturing the friendship today.
The other woman hadn’t attended Gabriel’s funeral, in spite of the fact that it had been well publicized (when such a man of note perished unexpectedly, it was difficult to anticipate anything to the contrary, after all). In the intervening years, she had evidently gone on to marry someone herself.
Cassie did not doubt that her former roommate was taking advantage of every chance to flaunt her own professional and personal accomplishments for her sometime friend at every possible opportunity. She had considered this at great length, and reached a plausible solution. Cassie remembered the way that Cynthia’s eyes had lingered on Gabriel whenever she brought him back to the room. Cynthia had spoken endearingly to him, in such a manner as to lead her roommate to believe that she was smitten with him. Cassie had not dismissed the possibility from her mind that Cynthia somehow held her accountable for his death, not to mention his inaccessibility to herself.
Of course, extraneous to all of this, Cynthia possessed the one thing that would be perpetually denied to Cassie. Simon was twelve, now, and had just finished the sixth grade. Cassie’s mind had insatiably devoured the pictures of him that Cynthia kept in her purse. She and Harvey had discussed the possibility of having a family at one point, but the critical juncture had long since passed. Gabriel had died while Cassie was still in her twenties, and it had been many years before she had enjoyed a level of intimacy with a man that would even allow her to begin considering the possibility of beginning a family with him. After Gabriel, she had dated the usual succession of preoccupied wharf rats, who had scarcely noticed the way that she held back during sex and simply moved on if they happened to take account that she did. Cassie’s biological clock had run its inexorable course until shortly before her fortieth birthday, when she began to realize that the yesterdays may well outnumber the tomorrows.
Harvey understood that the foundation of their relationship was founded on the premise of wu wei.[6] Cassie was no longer tremendously enthused as the prospect of having a child. As it stood, she would be at least sixty before that child had achieved a state of full autonomy. Harvey and she were as content as newlyweds while most of Cassie’s contemporaries had been indicted in the daily pantomime of restless spirits. Many of these insipid people spent their days among the colossal legacies of the insidious metropolitan juggernaut, endlessly enticed by the perceived utopia of an eventual retirement. These same people endlessly catered to children who would most likely still be asking their parents for money twenty years from now.
By the time that Cassie was 65, and eligible for retirement benefits, Harvey would barely be in his fifties. She was likely going to have someone to take care of her until she was no longer able to discern the difference between palliative attendance and neglect. It never crossed her mind that Harvey might get the notion into his head to abandon her prior to that stage. The concept of ‘age’ had been derided from marriage many years ago now. If need be, he would find another woman to tend to his own needs while he ministered to her. Surely, he would begin to generate some significant capital whenever this ambition of painting had long since been dismissed as a temporary, youthful preoccupation. At the very least, he would be remunerated handsomely whenever he found an occupation which took advantage of his potential. In many ways, Cassie acknowledged herself to be a stewardess of the man’s faculties of reason.
She entered the home silently, simply one more molecule of dust amid a realm of pallid decay. Though the building had once possessed a decadent self awareness of misaligned grandeur, it was now a shrine of former ceremony. Though she had inherited the premises, they had fallen into a state of chronic disrepair due to her own inability to maintain them. Servants were out of the question on a flower girl’s salary. Neither could she afford to spend time cleaning the place herself, as she worked full time. Cassie had considered selling the place more than once, but it had been in her family for four generations. Her youth had expired here, among the thrushes and valleys and crystallized dew. Home was a requiem of personal solace, and Cassie cherished nothing more than sitting outside on warm nights. She relished the sanctuary in the same way that the surrounding fauna appreciated photosynthesis. It attended to an unconscious need for actualization, an inevitable propensity towards achieving something which was present in every silent spectacle by the quiet road.
During the days of her widowhood, Cassie had spent countless hours observing the solicitudes of a sleeping countryside. Crickets terrified her, but their soothing melody eased her restive spirit into slumber. Gabriel, ever the survivalist, had kept a .44 magnum in a drawer inside of the kitchen as a safety measure. After the paramedics had cut down his remains from the bedroom rafters upstairs, Cassie’s mind had often wandered to that drawer in dreams. The abstract enormity of it caused her to pine for release. Sleep was not a relinquishing of a cross, but simply the assumption of a very real and very macabre epistemological equation. She had never known what was inside of that drawer. Sometimes, she felt as though she was chasing her own broken heart down an unrelenting boulevard of despair, pushing herself ever further towards a pivotal moment of truth. They had words for what Gabriel had done, after all. Schizophrenia. Fugue. Escalated manic state. Clinical depression. Her attitude towards the peremptory police inquiries had been curt, peremptory. The death had been indisputably ruled a suicide by both the police and the coroner’s office. Due process had merely exacerbated her own dire stress. There was no judicial term for a broken heart.
Sometimes, she felt convinced that the drawer contained a heart. Her heart. His heart. The sanctimony of their marriage bed, one combined entity. She had collected loose stones for months, depositing them in loose shawls and keeping them by her bed. Sometimes, Cassie had gone outside, endlessly watching the receding tide as it eroded away against the rocks. This was how a soul had flown. Day in, and day out, a gradual masquerade of a show ending with a dancing finale at the end of a rope. Endless inconspicuous triggers.
Every few evenings, Cassie would awaken to find someone with her in bed. The assiduously comforting arm would be wound around her form as she lay prostate in a fetal position, conscious of her every breath. A muscular form would envelop her in silence, nuzzling her neck as he kissed her gently. She never remained awake long in these instances, though the comforting sensation remained with her throughout the day.
As what she now recognized as the grieving process progressed, Cassie had, of course, acknowledged this ambiguous animus form to be Gabriel, back from she knew not where to reassure her. Though that was a drastic leap of faith, even for someone who had been born and raised in the traditions of the church. Then, she began to believe that this manifest shadow was an incarnation of some latent need within herself. Somewhere out there, there was a spirit who needed to hold her as much as she herself needed to be held.
Cassie had left the house for a time, which was recommended in cases involving a traumatic loss, but this provided no real respite. After returning, she had gone to desperate lengths to obtain companionship of any kind. She had purchased several pets, but they tended to die quickly, especially the cats. The boyfriends had begun a couple of months later, to no avail. Once, she had hired a live-in nurse, but the bills had amassed faster than she could keep up with them.
Meanwhile, Cassie had given up using the toaster. It repeatedly regurgitated bread untouched after less than fifteen seconds of insertion. Occasionally, the bread was retained for so long that the result was a charred discharge of sludge. Sometimes, Cassie would walk into a drawing room to discover that there was a painting turned upside down. Just as she had managed to forget about the most recent incident of this kind, the same problem would recur. The water in the toilet bowl was sometimes known to flush the wrong way.
Of course, there were rational explanations for all of this. Cassie purchased a BreadMaster 2000, which proved satisfactory for the first couple of weeks until the same problem persisted. Faulty wiring? Entirely possible. The building was over 120 years old. Cassie did occasionally clean behind the paintings, and may have hung them up the wrong way herself. She was often extremely tired when she witnessed the toilet phenomenon.
However, as she munched on her charred bread while sitting on the edge of the bathtub flushing the toilet over and over, Cassie had reflected on the circumstances that brought her to that point. Since Harvey had arrived, the mysterious activities had stopped, though perhaps that could simply be attributed to having a handyman around the house. Cassie had deliberately refrained from asking him, even offhandedly, if he had ever taken a look at any of those things. She was reasonably positive that allusions to the supernatural tended to be man repellants.
Cassie entered the coat room silently, and closed the door in her wake. The sun was slanting abjectly through the refinished front windows. Immediately through an entranceway to her left was the accumulated library of the Monteroy/Brunet families. Books were heirlooms within Cassie’s pedigree, and four generations of Monteroys had amassed a private collection of well over 3,000 volumes. Cassie had attempted to take inventory in there several times, and, during her reclusive phase, had even considered opening it to the public as a heritage site. Her mother’s great-aunt had left her niece a formidable array of volumes from her own archives. Though the elder Monteroy had considered auctioning them off to private bidders, she had ended up expanding that wing of the house after Cassie’s father, Charles, had up and left them. The primary building had been expanded outward to include forty more square feet of room. Cassie’s uncle, Sampson, had been a contracted carpenter, and had added a screened in veranda situated immediately outside of the library.
To the right of the entrance room was a private series of refurbished offices, which included the private correspondences of Judge Elroy Monteroy’s illustrious thirty year judicial career. The third child of a Catholic fishing family who had fished for three generations on the banks of the St. Lawrence, Elroy had been the third son in a family of seven children. He had first risen to prominence as a successful investment banker before changing careers and emerging first as a prominent local advocate. Later, he had become a prominent face on the judge circuit. Cassie knew that, for all of his Atticus Finch meandering, the man had been a careerist to the bone. He had petitioned for a position as a Justice of the Peace, and she knew that he had coveted nothing more than an illustrious ceremonial post. He had, at one time, set his sights on the tantalizing position of Lieutenant Governor of the province of Nova Scotia. Political jockeying had more or less vouchsafed the post for a rival favoured by the temperate Whig majority, so Elroy had spent his retirement drinking himself into obscurity behind his books. Cassie had few memories of the old man, though she recalled a benevolent, smiling, reserved sort of fellow who was a drastic departure from the crusading Liberal who had at one time attempted to use his political connections to influence the federal climate as far away as Ottawa. After the Judge’s retirement, he had moved into a cramped adjoining office that had formerly belonged to his clerks, where he spent his days closeted away writing letters. Upon the event of his death, a safety deposit box containing his personal correspondences and confidential information had come to light. When Cassie’s own father had been called to the Bar in 1959, he had operated his practice from home. Cassie had never entirely understood why he did this, as her grandfather had only ever used the quarters as a personal study. They had ended up knocking out another wall and creating a third office to provide for support personnel and additional archives. It likely would have been less expensive to simply hang up his shackle downtown, but that wasn’t the way Charles’ mind worked. He devoted most of his professional life to establishing opaque boundaries of interest and prerogative in his professional domain. Demanding that a client drive outside of the city to seek the express privilege of his council maintained this equilibrium. Of course, the tepid religious influence of the 1960s had demanded that an attorney present an incontrovertibly impeccable family life, and there was no more effective way to accomplish this than by working out of the home. A simpering wife and two children could work wonders for establishing a rapport with clients.
Some of Cassie’s fondest childhood memories consisted of playing with her grandfather’s snowglobes in his office as the bespectacled old man watched, opening his snuff box once every half hour. That snuff box had been an ornately hand carved gift from one of his own grandfather, who had struck gold out west and retired among the extravagant new money of an antebellum elite.
Cassie had reviewed the personal effects of her own father shortly after coming of age herself. Many of his documents had been disseminated widely among law firms and consolidation agencies throughout the country, and it would have been next for impossible for her to track all of them down, even had she had wanted to, for there was next to no paper trial. Where his father in law had been prone to elaborate embellishments and ruminations in his own private records, Charles, when he had been inclined to keep a journal at all, used it as little more than a daily itinerary.
Cassie had, after all, been little more than eight when he vanished without a trace. To this day, she was unsure why he had left so abruptly. She had found nothing in his records to indicate financial liabilities of any kind, though perhaps that involved separate matters. He had, after all, never owned the home. She had found documents in his archives which indicated property ownership in the Caribbean and in Europe, which seemed to explain what he spent at least some of his own money on. His family had never gone without in any material sense, though Cassie had almost found this to be objectionable to the point of resentment during her formative years. She had always gone to the school in the latest and best fashions. Her shoes, which had filled an entire closet, were imported from the cobblers of Florence. Her calico dresses came from France and New York, and she was brought into town every other Saturday to get her hair done.
In spite of this, during the flower child heydays of the 1960s, Cassie had been estranged and often openly ridiculed by her peers at school. It was a period when many of her girlfriends had begun to don faded jeans and worn shirts, relishing an absence of boundaries and tradition. She, on the other hand, had often been punished as a result of getting dirt on her clothing. It was a double standard which had struck her as profoundly unfair. Most of the time, Charles had remained sequestered away in his study, with clients or without. On the few occasions when she had been introduced to important clients (she specifically remembered a Mr. Guest and a Mr. Swank, both of whom looked as though they belonged in immaculate wigs and robes that were three sizes too big for them), she had been expected to remain silent and smile as much as possible. Cassie remembered that both men had seemed pleased with the hampering efforts at a pleasant domestic scene in the home, and, on more than one occasion, her father had later rewarded her with sweets and even the occasional kind word under some pretext.
After Gabriel’s death, Cassie had tirelessly reviewed all of the records that had been bestowed back here by what appeared to be the mandate of her father’s will. She had also investigated many of her grandfather’s papers, which were much more informative by far, as well as other family documents which had been closeted away for years. Over the process of her searching, she had encountered several of the chronic scandals which seemed to plague old families. There had been the occasional mistress gone sour here and a closeted homosexual there, but most of that had been documented in the late Elroy’s papers and seemed to provide no pretext for the departure of her father.
She recalled the circumstances of his departure vividly. In 1964, she had noticed his less than conspicuous absence after a couple of days, shortly after returning from a school trip. This was not at all unusual back then. He was always leaving for weeks at a time on business trips, with little to no prior notice. After six months of no updates, Cassie’s Uncle Stewart (her mother’s flamboyant and caustically impotent brother) had moved into the spare bedroom. He was something of a steward around the place, as there was no one left to run the day to day affairs of the home. He had passed away when Cassie had been seventeen of a blood infection, but the impeccable state of the records had mainly been his doing.
For years, Cassie had presumed her father dead. In the months following Gabriel’s passing, she had briefly consulted a psychologist, who had informed her that her father’s conspicuous inexplicable absence had resulted in a lack of closure. She had no immediate reasons to believe him dead, so her unconscious mind chose to radically undermine her own sense of self and other by insisting that he was neither alive or dead. He had become an ambiguous, almost apparitional presence during her adolescent years, always seeming to raise his head in her thoughts during the most unlikely of moments. She had made the initial effort at college not because she particularly wanted to go or had a certain career path in mind which would have required it, but rather because she imagined that it was because it was what he might have wanted. Cassie always knew that he had loved her dearly, but had simply been incapable of expressing it in accordance with the checks and balances which had starkly defined her own personal dominion. During her high school years, which she had mainly elapsed sobbing in a bathroom stall, she had commanded herself to face the uncertainties of her own life because she was positive that there was a quietly sanguine spirit watching over her on a daily basis. Her father had never been there for her in life, she felt, so he must surely have had some quiet obligation to remain there in death.
This temperament had continued until she was almost 24, when she received a call from her older brother, Luke. He was eleven years her senior, and had attended Cambridge before working his way into the office of one of the great newspaper magnates. She had ended up flying to Toronto out of her own pocket, which by this time was a considerable expense, so that both she and her brother could be present at the reading of a will in which they were both concerned. Luke had met her sagaciously at the airport with shrewd words of greeting, though he seemed to have been deliberately ambiguous at her repeated inquiries as to why she was there in the first place. Cassie had never once suspected that the contents of the will would have anything to do with her father. During her childhood, many relations who were relative to her only in the significant stratification of their own assets when contrasted with those of her own immediate family seemed to be trooping through the house. Cassie suspected that the constant entertaining and stress had contributed in no small way to her mother’s early decline.
The truth was that Cassie had hardly known Luke to begin with. He had always seemed like an adult to her during her early years, and had been away at university by the time that she was in the second grade. So, it was resultantly more or less a stranger who had escorted her to the offices of Huntington and Lewis Barristers & Solicitors, and a stranger who had received something like $3 million in liquidated assets, in addition to miscellaneous stock options and bonds. The real tragedy of it all was that Luke could scarcely have cared. By this time, his annual worth was something like $200,000, and he had done exceptionally well in the markets. They had taken a brief lunch together afterward before Cassie had returned home to care for their ailing mother. True, Luke had taken care of most of the specialized practitioner medical costs, but he could never understand what sorts of psychological commitment had been involved on Cassie’s end.
Cassie loved her mother, but had never especially liked her. Over the years, she had often found herself the scapegoat targeted when the woman’s eroded nerves had simply become too much to tolerate. In between running the private business that had flourished in her family for three generations and entertaining guests in a sprawling home virtually all by herself every other night, Madeline Brunet had aged prematurely. In her more spiteful moments, Cassie had held her mother accountable for her father’s disappearance. Perhaps if she had been a more devoted wife, attuned to her fathers’ needs, then the old man would have stayed instead of expiring sixteen years later in a Massachusetts hospital room within walking distance of the maternity ward.
Charles had remained present in Cassie’s life for all of those years. His had been an unobtrusive and malignantly indifferent presence. Often, Cassie suspected that she had been the catalyst behind the decaying marriage. Was she truly her father’s daughter? Had she been consummated under some other guileless pretention of matrimony? Madeline had been well into her 40s when Cassie had been born. Perhaps her mother had believed herself to be beyond risk. Or, maybe there had been no improprieties there, but her own father had been the one who had erred. Maybe she was a passion child. In fact, she had little doubt that this was so. Her parents had already produced their successful son, and had little need to nurture a daughter who would one day become the tenant of an empty house and legacy. Either way, her father had always been distant with her, save for in instances of what could only be ruled preconventional business dealings and words of commendation or high esteem dispensed like stock options to employees. She was simply evidence of his shortcomings, in one way or another, and he had possessed a lawyer’s damning astuteness when it came to such matters.
So, Luke had walked away with a significant slice of Charles Brunet’s gross assets. The remainder, as Cassie understood it, had been doled out among various charitable organizations and old colleagues. The home had not been his to give away to begin with, though his other properties had been entirely liquidated, so Cassie had reason to believe that he most likely would have seen her destitute were it within his power to accomplish that much. However, this home had remained in the Monteroy family, and Madeline Monteroy-Brunet had not left a will, perhaps one failed measure invoked too late to spite the husband who had abandoned her. In absence of contending interests, the house had passed to Cassie. As Charles had willed his intellectual property in his estate to whomever possessed the home, doubtlessly expecting Luke to obtain it whenever Madeline passed, his years of estrangement from the domestic scene was unable to anticipate the apathy that penetrated to the depths of his former wife’s soul. So, by a legal technicality, Cassie had ended up inheriting her father’s papers, what little good that did her.
She had reason to believe that her father had been prying in her affairs for years, or at the very least keeping himself apprised of her progress somehow. This had certainly not been done out of any spirit of love or affection, or anything else of the sort which might have comforted the sobbing sixteen year old who was clutching a pregnancy test in one hand with vomit covering her school uniform. On the contrary, in fact. It would seem that he had conducted this business at his own all too occasional leave in the same discrete way that a veteran broker might check the value of stocks. Cassie had read between the lines in his will, and understood that was particularly incensed at the dual reality that she had neither graduated from a prestigious university or married remotely well. It was not that he had ever ardently pushed for her to attend school, but the fact that she had taken this path of her own accord and failed at it spoke worse of her than never trying would have, in his books. What was worse, she had gone in the first place in an effort to achieve precisely the contrary. Though Cassie had only nominal evidence to confirm the fact, she believed that her father had been a traditional misogynist. Women were to be seen, and not heard. He had seen universities as prerequisites for success in a man’s world. Even had she walked away with a degree, chances were that he would have forever seen her own achievements as negligible, or, at least, paling in comparison when contrasted with those of his beloved son. As it stood, what he perceived to be her failure affirmed his own perceptions, a validation which doubtlessly re-established the psychological equilibrium that the circumstances of her birth had caused.
Lacking a thorough education, she still may have found favour with Charles had she married well and kept her head down. Gabriel had been a local boy, by no means unsuccessful or devoid of prospects, but entirely obscure and lacking in the critical worldliness that defined clean cut success in this era. Cassie remained convinced that Charles had known nothing of what had apparently been Gabriel’s mental instability, though he had apparently been lurking at the fringes of her life for years. She herself had known very little about his struggles. Be that as it may, given what she now knew about her father, Cassie would not have put it past him to influence Gabriel’s fortunes in such a way as to cause him to believe that there was nothing left to live for. This much would have been hardly out of character. It would have ruined the two of them, and did.
Cassie’s adolescent perception of her father as a kind of romantic figure akin to some of the great quests of redemption in literature had been entirely shattered and reconfigured into a vengeful apparition in the midst of a Toronto law office. So far as she could tell, Charles had not been driven by any secret passions. He had not been in love with an unattainable woman, or driven by financial demons or debtors like some Jean Valjean of contemporary Canada, or anything else of the like. Instead, the helm of his being had been usurped by a great void of nothing, of something defined only by its conspicuous absence of something worthy of human sympathy. He evoked no passions at all as a man, but was rather an ambiguous concept whose malevolent influence had influenced Cassie’s life in ways that she could never truly begin to fathom.
By 1964, Luke had been away at school, and Charles had been relegated here to a home that he did not own with a wife whose noble dowdiness oppressed his mind, and a daughter who embodied his own domestic failures, whatever those might be. His father in law had been in the grave for the better part of a decade. Outside of a moderately successful practice that could easily be replicated elsewhere, he had nothing along the lines of relatives or friends who might have missed him had he gone. He likely left for strictly pragmatic reasons, for want of anything remotely meaningful.
Cassie removed her raincoat, a light blue monstrosity which had caught her attention at the local Wal-Mart the previous summer, and deposited it in the closet with a sigh. In fact, this could area be considered more of a cloak room, due in large part to its abundant space. There were at least two dozen hangars interspersed across two racks, ostentatious only by their lack of use and continued vacancy. This home had once been besieged on a daily basis by visitors, solicitors, relatives, and all manner of guests, both invited and not. In neglect, the room had collected an abscess of mildew, festering away among a rubric of spilled intentions and desolate sorrows. In one corner, an overcoat hung unattended, where it had been for over thirty years. It was a great, dark, behemoth of a garment, worn at the seams and concealing a pair of emblazoned designer insignia on the inside. Approaching it tended to dispel a thin layer of dust. If Cassie had been made to haphazard a guess, she would have said that the coat belonged to a male creature, who had most likely been sufficiently inebriated on one of the bygone worthy occasions to such an extent that he had either completely forgotten to whom he had entrusted its care or had been too mortified to retrieve it in the days and weeks after its deposition under the stern countenance of the Advocate. His parties, when he had them, tended to be stagnant gatherings reminiscent of the bleak eddies of Prohibition. Though great quantities of drink was often imbibed, this was not a great matter of esteem among the attendants. The single electrical bulb hanging like an afterthought from the rafters had long since burned out these many years.
Cassie retreated into the main hall, and heard an engine purr as Harvey eased their Escalade out of the driveway. Headlights washed across the front window like a silent beacon penetrating the tempestuous storm. A peal of thunder resonated across the heavens like an unbidden milieu of screams from those long dead. Cassie checked her watch hastily. 53 minutes. She would have plenty of time to finish the marinade and clean herself up before the Charlestons arrived.


************


The colossal home rose in front of his dilated pupils like a desolate tombstone as he made his way up the front walk. Pausing for a moment, he gazed with a forlorn expression at the doomed flowers, though his mind was preoccupied by the jaded architecture. The old man had roamed these lands, devoid of the basest comforts, for years innumerable now. The forces which continued to provide for his sensory consciousness and brought him from day to day were beyond his comprehension, though he had spent many years studying them at the expense of his own family. One child was long dead, so many anonymous particles of ash hastening on the wind. However, he had never forgotten his little girl, the small one who had been the light of his world all the years of his life without even knowing it. She would never know how she had fostered his appreciation of small things in life, how the artwork created by an amateur and signed with a juvenile flourish had remained in his hotel rooms and offices these many years, in plain view.
Nothing may illustrate a lack of purpose more thoroughly than a vacant grave. The tightly packed earth, refuge to countless decomposing corpses which festered in the pale moonlight, had yet to include the pale face of the one who meant most to him. In life, the old man’s restless footsteps had brought him to the precipice of a thundering abyss. The storm which was unfolding its promise around him represented a cyclical mental symmetry here.
They had not been together in many years, and, perhaps, it was still not too late. Upon considering the matter at length, she would decide that it was for the best to come with him to the foreign majesty which lurked in the depths of his imagination like an Eden of mystery. He had spent endless hours convincing her husband that it was for the best. He had seen reason eventually, though the old man had reached practically the end of his rope trying to convince him.
Now, the old man was not certain that he could return to those lands, as the forces tethering him here now were stronger than anything that he had ever known. Perhaps he would linger here for a time, integrating himself into the fold of those who had gone before. They still lingered in the woods and foothills of this great land, restive spirits as nomadic as they had been all the days of their lives. Once, in a realm across the seas, they had committed themselves to toil without end, drudgery devoted expressly to the intent of salvaging a concept of reason which could never be redeemed.
The old man could never understand why humanity found it so readily apparent within the rubric of his own intentions and faculties to endlessly justify death, tabulating and scaling it like any other aspect of the world. Religious mandates were encompassed in this idea. There were surely many migratory spirits here who, had they lived out their lives in solidarity and placid ignorance, might never have found themselves obliged to this world. Their captors lingered on with them as well, of course, though whether bound through chagrin and duty or the mandate of a higher power, the old man could not know. Questions are a symptom of age, and answers are simply intrusive questions masquerading as solutions.
One matter, at least, was clear to him. All of the efforts of this world are for nought. Ambition and damnation walk hand in hand along the fallow path to ruin. All that mattered now was his little girl. Though she was an adult woman these many long years, he felt attuned to the thoughts of hopelessness and despair which had supplanted a great tree that, with his guidance and support, might have gone on and yet might go on to bear great fruit. He would never leave her side again, if she would only hear his desperate cry after all of these years. She could never know that, in spite of the chasm of years and perspectives which isolated them, she would always be his princess. Nothing that she did could ever find fault in his eyes, for he would always love her more than life itself.
His gaze remained unblinkingly upon the home, which towered inhospitably over him. Though no longer intimidated by the indomitable style of architecture which insisted on demeaning the individual person in favour of utilitarian sentiment, he felt a begrudging respect for the ancestors, whose own blinding desire for self mortification had kept him steadfast and anchored in his own humility. This home was a port in the storm, much like the countless other harbours which populated this vast coast.
Of course, there were those who might consider his itinerary here tonight a sordid business. As he fondled the leather container in his pocket, which he had fit inside only with the most considerable effort, he felt the cold metal inside brush against his hand like a chiding voice of rationale. Perhaps she would be quick to see reason. He hoped that words alone might be sufficient for her to see his side of things, though he was, of course, prepared to resort to more efficient methods if circumstances warranted them. With any luck, it would be quick.
The door was unlocked, as the old man knew that it must be, and he drifted through silently. She could never have sensed his presence under ordinary circumstances, much less now. He knew that she was an intelligent child, and could be highly motivated when she set her mind to it, but he had known more observant cattle. He could hear water matriculating through the pipes upstairs. She was evidently in the shower.
The old man surveyed the entry hall with distaste. The home had certainly changed radically since he had last been here. Hunting trophies lined the walls, including pelts, the heads of various animals, and several plaques and memorabilia which all appeared to be related to shooting contests. She must be dating a hunting enthusiast. The old man was sure that a woman like Cassandra could surely have any man she wanted, though he judged that she must be past her prime by this point. Even so...his lip curled distastefully. He intended to give her a strict redressing about that.
It appeared as though neither the cloakroom nor the office suites had changed a very great deal in the intervening years. He made a mental note to retrieve the papers before departing tonight. They were, after all, rightfully his, but that could wait.
The old man strode briskly past these rooms and the stairs, ignoring the rich mahogany walls which had certainly cost more than he could ever afford. The men who had built this place well over a century before had spared no expense, and it showed in the most banal of places.
He reached the billiards room momentarily. The old man resisted the temptation to pour himself a brandy from the stash that was surely around here somewhere. He was no longer capable of drinking, after all, but the temptation was ever present.
The room was structured with the obliging audacity precipitated by four generations of men. There were two pool tables, in addition to several card tables and a liquor cabinet. However, the old man’s attention was drawn to an enormous oil painting which was hung on the other side of the room, bathed in shadow. He recognized the figure that the portrait depicted instantaneously. This could only be Gabriel.
The subject was clearly young, no more than seventeen or eighteen at the most. He looked tall and wholesome, with one hand akimbo on his hip while the other clutched a rotor board by his side. This portrait must have surely been commissioned shortly following the graduation of Cassandra’s late husband from high school. The old man knew that they had been sweet on each other in those days, and was surprised that they had not gotten a double entendre done. Perhaps they had, and Cassandra had simply restored this from Gabriel’s effects after the suicide.
The adolescent’s laughing, warm brown eyes radiated a sagacious wisdom and golden sense of humour. His nose appeared tall and Roman, large without being overly obtrusive. The boy’s mouth was twitching with good humour, a modest smile which might have been called almost a smirk had it appeared on a less refined visage. His hair, long, dark, lustrous, and neatly combed, hung nearly to his shoulders. The old man could easily see why Cassandra so cherished this likeness, and why she insisted on keeping it closeted up back here. However, the old man could not understand how a child in this contemporary age could possibly have the legendary patience required to maintain a pose for so long while the painting was completed. Perhaps he had simply been paying homage to his fiancee’s desire.
The old man retreated bodily from the room, proceeding still further into the house that he had come to know so well. He began to smell a delicious aroma on the air, and, after wandering momentarily into the dining room, discovered that the table was set for four. Cassandra must be expecting company.
Not for the first time, the old man began to have second thoughts. Perhaps he ought to leave, return another night, but...no. Forces beyond his control mandated his activities ruthlessly. Ever since he had watched her emerge from The Constantinople earlier this evening, he had known that he needed to move. It was not without fascination that he acknowledged the fact that the pub had been built on a former Druid expatriate burial ground. The architects had not known this, of course. Had they been more familiar with local cartography, then they would have been able to trace the graveyard back to precisely that latitude and longitude. However, the old man had sensed something even more sinister beneath the foundation and earthly facade.
Though the children of the forest yet lurked there, counselling the marginalized and destitute as the lost ones tended to the appetites of their own forsaken hearts and minds, there was a still more omniscient power there beyond life and death which animated the pantomime of their existence. The old man sensed a cavern beyond space, echo beyond echoes. If life was a cyclical power of servitude to some higher virtue or state of being, then this world was but one link in a far more intricate chain. In life, when he had yet been capable of dreaming anything beyond the blissful solstice of oblivion, he had envisioned an elaborate chain of tremendous intricacy stretching away upon some unfathomable length. Distance was irrelevant in that place. It may well have only measured a few yards in length, or it may have stretched on for miles and miles incalculable. At the end of the chain, or perhaps at the celestial center, there was a vast world unlike anything that he had ever encountered in mind, body, or spirit. In some way which contravened the fabric of being itself, the silent world was dying, though whether it was a succubus or some realm of deliverance beyond him. At the time, he had entertained the impression that some of the links were, in fact, inverted reflections, that some of the links did not possess in of themselves a state of authenticity or continuity. It was a state of surrealism unlike anything he had ever known. The old man wondered if he was destined to return there in death. There were far worse lots, he did not doubt. Fair...enough.
He had bartered away his free will when he left his family, all those years ago now. There were only the silent graves, and the dissolute haze as the oblivion consumed him. He pivoted on his heel, and strode back up the hall.
The time to act was now.


*************


Cassie took a moment to admire herself in the full length mirror that had once been her mother’s. After showering, drying her hair, dressing, and spending several frantic minutes at her makeup table, she discovered that she had less than fifteen minutes before the Charlestons were due to arrive. The dress was a pale, strapless, salmon pink affair which nicely complemented both her fine hair and polished dress shoes. It emphasized all of the necessary curves without appearing unduly simpering or smutty.
Cassie admired herself for a moment, preening this way and that to evaluate the effect. Everything met with her satisfaction, and she automatically turned back to her dressing table to retrieve her hairbrush and best hair band. She reached for them absentmindedly and overcompensated, losing her balance. Fortunately, Cassie managed to recover herself by instinctively grabbing the edge of the dressing table and straightening herself up, though not without knocking both the hairbrush and hair band to the floor. Shit.
Now, she stood frozen in what was practically a tableau position, contemplating her predicament. The hair brush could be replaced from a drawer without any tremendous exertion, certainly, but retrieving the band would mean inevitably rumpling her dress in the process. If she were to do that, then she would need to iron her dress again at least once, and possibly even twice for good measure. You could never be too precautious about these things. Better to be precautious than precocious, her mother had always said.
So, there was nothing for it. She would have to use her second best hair band, but...wait. She seldom used that long, and it had been consigned to that empty drawer for so long. There was dust and contamination everywhere in this home, after all. Why should her bedroom be any different? Dust sweats. Even touching it could contaminate her hands, endangering first herself and then others. Disease breeds in vile cubbies just like this one. It wasn’t just herself she had to worry about. What if she touched Harvey, or one of the guests? She could cause a contamination which would surely make one of them mortally ill. It could take months, or years, for them to contract the illness, but, when they inevitably died of some other apparent cause, it would all be her fault. Cassie shook her head, vainly trying to expel her thoughts. Not now. I can’t start thinking about this now, of all times.
In the aftermath of Gabriel’s death, Cassie had been diagnosed with post-traumatic anxiety, which often manifested itself in the form of paranoid obsessions and compulsions. She had never medicated it, believing that pharmaceuticals would only heighten what Dr. Lawrence had described as her mental instability, quote unquote. He claimed at the time that this was a repressed mechanism which had been chemically evoked to help her deal with her own feelings of guilt over Gabriel’s suicide.
Now, though she was typically anxiety free, Cassie lapsed back into her old manner of thinking every now and again, particularly under situations of high stress. Seeing her happily married, successful former roommate within the dismal candour of her family home could definitely represent a trigger. Cassie understood that, though she could acknowledge that Cynthia was far from perfect and had her own faults, that she was envious of the other woman and even felt inferior to her. Harvey. Where is Harvey? She needed his emotional support to get her through this. He would need to be back by the time that the Charlestons arrived, or she would be a hopeless mess. Cassie could not confront this alone.
For a moment, she debated removing the dress before reaching for the head band. Perhaps there would be only a nominal chance of causing any creases if she did that...but there could be no guarantees, and Cassie shivered at the prospect of exposing her naked body to the contamination. Before she could think it through properly, her body responded entirely on impulse, and she hastily bent down in pursuit of the reprehensible accessory before her brain could think better of it. However, her heart rate doubled as she discovered that it was nowhere in sight. The hairbrush lay there innocently enough, but the hair band was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps it had rolled under the bed, but that seemed like too much of a striking coincidence. Perhaps the poltergeist was at work again. In her more benign moods, Cassie liked to think of him as a grandstanding European, a sort of eccentric Winston Churchill who was perpetually looking for his slippers and incited disorder by rearranging the world into the abstract state of chaos from whence it had come in his own mind. It could be her grandfather, one of the only real friends she had known during her youth, attempting to remind her of more lighthearted times. Perhaps (and Cassie knew that she was flattering herself), he was a shy ghost who delighted in playing tricks on a beautiful woman, an exquisite artist who was too shy to reveal himself as the architect behind this absurd chaos.
However, most of the time, she knew better. Perhaps it was her father, back from the dead to exact some vengeance for a slight, real or imagined. Maybe he intended for her to live in constant fear, waiting for the other shoe to drop until she drove herself mad with disconcerted anguish. Maybe it was her spiteful, lonely mother, searching for absolution. Or, perhaps...and her mind shuddered at the thought, though she could by no means dismiss it as a possibility...it was Gabriel’s spirit who was behind her misfortunes. He could be back for any one of a multitude of reasons, though Cassie grew increasingly perplexed as her own perceived faults reached grandiose proportions.
When the disturbances first began to happen, she had imagined that, if the perpetrator was indeed Gabriel, that he was trying to tell her that it was time for her to move on. She had been lonely and emotionally forlorn in every sense, desolate almost beyond saving. However, after she had begun to date, the instances of peculiar, supernaturally inspired events had seemed to become even more frequent, if anything. She had begun to keep a journal of her own. Though never a habitual writer, Cassie had used it to document what she believed to be the supernatural phenomena. However, that had proved more unnerving than anything she had tried to date. She had been diligent about writing in the volume whenever it had been warranted, but began to encounter an entirely new and previously unfathomed difficulty. Ordinarily a very orderly and regulated person, Cassie found that she kept losing journals at an alarming rate. This, too, was justifiable. The phenomena often happened late at night, when she was on the verge of sleep. Often, she would put them down, and be unable to find them the next day or whenever she needed them next. This had driven her almost to the point of hysterics.
I am selling this home, Cassie told herself for the hundredth time. She had never been able to muster up the nerve to sell this place, though it wasn’t simply a matter of being fond of her sedentary lifestyle. An appraisal of the property, regardless of how high or how low, would place a monetary value on her life. Starting over would only populate old demons rather than exterminate old ones.
Cassie suppressed the urge to scream as the phone by her dressing table rang shrilly, jarring her out of her reverie. She picked it up on impulse, though she wished a moment later that she had simply allowed it to go to voicemail.
“Hello?”
“Hello, Cassandra.” Cassie’s heart, which had previously been moving at a gradual canter, now broke into a full fledged gallop. She cursed whatever misfortunes had caused her mother in law to call now, of all times, when she was already on the verge of an anxiety attack. Here, now, the older woman was the absolute last person Cassie wanted to hear from, a feeling that was heightened by the tension of the moment even more so than usual. Veronica Fields had strongly fortified feelings on practically every subject conceivable, though relations with her were untenable when it came to her son. She was one solid bulwark of contention, a self assured and excessively confident woman who insisted on being called “Mother” in spite of the fact that she wasn’t even a full twenty years older than Cassie.
Cassie shuddered at what must surely be the woman’s perception of her, a denizen of old money who was doubtlessly the laughingstock of every rotary club between here and Houston. She spoke slowly, carefully, attempting to convey herself as evenly tempered with an indifferent disposition.
“Hello, Mother.” The awkward silence which ensued would have been sufficiently frigid to freeze cavities in hell. Their last telephone conversation had not ended on good terms, and most long distance exchanges they had gone through since the marriage had ended with one of them hanging up on the other. Cassie reluctantly supposed that she was usually on the receiving end of these indignities. She glanced silently at the crucifix above her bed, silently imploring God for patience. Though she adored everything about Harvey, Cassie had long since lost track of the number of times that she had worn out the carpet, praying for guidance on how to deal with his mother. Cassie had always continued to pray in the way that she had been taught as a child. Firstly, she would begin with an earnest discourse, recounting her day and thanking God for her blessings in context. When that narrative was done, she would ask Him to bless people individually, and was always certain to include the name of Veronica Fields at the top of the list. She liked to believe that God might have found this more psychologically endearing, though she was probably just desperate. Finally, she would ask forgiveness for any perceived transgressions that she had committed over the course of the day. All too often, sins of rudeness or reservation against her mother-in-law presided over the list. Praying again for patience, Cassie numbly sat down.
“I have arrived back in town sooner than expected, and would like to see you. I can be there in fifteen minutes. How does that sound?” Lie. The adder rose its sibilant head immediately this time, and Cassie supposed that this much could be attributed to her almost hysterical mood. A lie would be foolish. Veronica would simply drive past her home out of sheer spite, and, upon discovering that there was another car there, would simply add “pathological liar” to her already formidable list of shorthand names for her son’s wife. Cassie knew that the falsetto sweetness of the question was rhetorical. Apparently according to some unvoiced standard of excellence, Veronica seemed to believe that any competent wife should be ready to entertain on 15 minutes’ notice. Naturally, she would still find just as much fault with anything lacking in the evening as she would have in the event that Cassie had had two weeks to prepare. For a moment, in spite of full knowledge of the consequences, she was sorely tempted to lie anyway. Postpone the inevitable. She opened her mouth to improvise a lie.
“Of course. You couldn’t have picked a better time. A friend of mine will be arriving shortly, with her husband. You’ll fit right in.” Cassie represented this last generic catch phrase as soon as it came out of her mouth. For a moment, she wanted to scream into the phone, scream until her lungs failed her.
“Good. I will see you soon, Cassandra.” The line went dead, and Cassie stood there for a moment before replacing it into its cradle. She felt tears, unbidden and scalding, creeping into her eyes. Numbly, she found herself pacing into a corner, her legs moving mechanically of their own accord. She placed her nose against the plaster, and moaned. The act of crying, while not behaviourally abhorrent to her, would have smeared her makeup to the point of no return. She turned around, staring fixedly at the bed. Whether or not her hair band was under there was immaterial. As a girl, under the bed was where the monsters had lurked. Crossing that threshold now would upend the world as she knew it, even if there really was no pestilence or spirit or whatever else under there. It would have been an act as foreign to her as slapping the minister across the face when her time came for communion at church.
Cassie moved back to the mirror, staring at herself in dismay. Her naturally blonde hair was loose and slightly dishevelled down past her shoulders, framing her stricken hazel eyes and round nose. Anything else but that hair band would not do, and even that was past the point of contamination now. She kept the dust relegated to other parts of the house, where the shrouds of her past prevailed. It wasn’t supposed to infiltrate this room, her inner sanctum of unadulterated purity. She kept house in the same way that she perceived the world. There could only ever be mutually antagonistic parallels of black and white, good and evil. Ambiguities threatening to create a schism there must not be tolerated, and would generate immorality in an otherwise commendable mind.
Now, however, Cassie’s own features were not what disconcerted her. Instead, she witnessed the broken woman that had been her mother staring back at her. The features themselves may not have changed physically, but they underwent a haggard metaphysical metamorphosis. They had an intense worldliness in them which caused Cassie to step back physically, as though she had been struck. The world threatened to dissolve around her as another clap of thunder shook the house. She wanted nothing more than to crawl under the covers and melt, but felt buffeted around the face.
Cassie was incomplete, and her sanctum violated. Where is Harvey? She could not have coveted a glass of something, even cold water, with more vindictiveness in that moment. Pastor Miguel’s words on the inferno returned to her; they would trade their entire fortunes for one sip of cold water. Cassie had never identified with those sentiments more strongly in her life. She sought to immolate herself, yearning to substitute a physical, identifiable pain for this gulf of uncertainty which tormented her. Her mind involuntarily drifted back to the days before Harvey, and she shuddered anew. Cassie craved a method of penance, a way to atone for her sins while simultaneously rendering herself immaculate. In those days, she had resorted to very draconian measures to bring about a spiritual rebirth.
Once, while having a heated argument with another woman over something trivial, Cassie’s adversary had called her vain. The remark had been directed at her dress, a decadent thing which she herself had despised. It had belonged to her mother. Upon arriving home, Cassie had scarcely left home for three days. She had walked into her shower, still wearing the dress, and turned the hot water on as far as it would go. As the steam and boiling liquid washed over her flesh, the frantic chaos which had entirely consumed her mind was replaced by a solitary awareness of pain. She had screamed, of course; screamed until she was hoarse with exhaustion without even realizing it, screaming in the middle of a bleak wilderness where there was not a soul for miles to hear her. Cassie likened such an experience to being baptised in the seething conflagrations of a hell which understood. The sensations of a bitter damnation were readily accessible; pain past all endurance, pain beyond reason or understanding. The dress had been ruined, of course, but Cassie would have sacrificed a thousand more like it to learn that critical lesson.
Abruptly, Cassie froze. A board had just creaked downstairs. She was sure of it. The floors were as old as the home, and were often prone to making noises at the most inopportune times. For instance, Harvey was an early riser, and Cassie could not count the number of times that he had woken her up on his way to the Espresso machine or his studio. Someone is in the house. Harvey? Cassie doubted it. He would have come directly upstairs, to let her know that he had returned. Besides, he wasn’t due to arrive for at least ten more minutes. Cassie’s skin crawled at the implications of this. I’m being foolish, she told herself. It was probably just the wind, or else I’m imagining things.
She crossed the floor silently to the closed door of her room, and opened it slightly ajar before peeking out. The corridor outside was precisely as she had left it. Cassie’s grandmother, Nora, had been fond of weaving tapestries, and much of her work was displayed in this part of the house. Without a word, Cassie straightened her dress and moved tremulously towards the stairs. She descended slowly, and breathed a sigh of relief upon reaching the bottom. There was no shoe residue on the linoleum, which could only mean that there had been no intruder. Heaven above. I need to calm down.
Cassie returned at length to her bedroom, where she sat in front of her dressing table and spent several more minutes combing her hair at length. When she was finished, she replaced her ornamental hairbrush on the nightstand, and recoiled. The thoughts of trepidation and self disgust which raced through her mind threatened to overwhelm her. She had retrieved the hairbrush from its place on the ground when she knew that she really ought to have gone for the head band first. Doing that might have cancelled out the contamination. Cassie hadn’t thought about that. There was certainly nothing that she could do now. She checked her watch. Five minutes. Her heart racing, Cassie obeyed the impetus of her mind and stepped into her washroom, then proceeding to wash her hands vigorously. Once she had finished, she considered shutting the tap off with her hands, but knew that this would be a counterproductive exercise. It would simply bring her directly back to square one. She used her forearm to nudge it off, but could barely stand the thought of her bare flesh coming into contact with the vile thing. Before leaving her room, Cassie paused, and retrieved an ornamental rosary from her desk. Though not a Catholic herself, the trinket had once been her grandmother’s, and was a positive omen for Cassie. Of course, she had to remember to adjust the rhythm of her breathing as she put it on, as doing otherwise would have incited the wrath of forces unmentionable against her.
Cassie hurried back downstairs, doing her best not to touch anything on the way. She was on her way to the kitchen when she stopped dead in her tracks. Bile rose in her throat, and she felt as though she were on the verge of vomiting. Father’s office door is open. Cassie reviewed her actions after entering the house, and felt positive that she had gone nowhere near the office suites. The wind? Unlikely. She surely would have shut it if it had been open when she entered the house.
The thought never consciously entered Cassie’s mind to approach it. She simply acted of her own accord, moving towards it as though captivated by a trance. With every step that she took, it seemed as though her destination inched farther and farther away.
When Cassie did arrive at long last, she took a peremptory glance inside. The room was enveloped in shadow. A modestly populated bookshelf stood up against one wall, mostly containing legal volumes and case studies. There was a dim fireplace in another corner, unused these last 34 years. There was also a large, oaken desk, and, as Cassie’s eyes travelled to it, her heart stopped as her mouth opened in a silent scream which refused to vocalize itself. There was someone sitting there! Cassie could not make out who it was. The dim illumination in the room prevented that. He...She...It...was a silhouette behind the desk which rose as she entered.
As Cassie instinctively retreated, her nerve entirely deserted her. She bumped her ankle against the door and stumbled, crashing to the floor in an undignified heap. The figure rushed out from behind the desk, almost seeming to move as a liquid shadow. Cassie had landed on her hip, but was entirely unconscious of the pain. Stars clouded her vision, and her breathing grew slack as icy fear penetrated every square inch of her body. She curled herself into a fetal ball, and let out a miserable moan. Please, Daddy, don’t...
“Mrs. Fields?” The voice certainly did not sound like it belonged to a vengeful spirit, whatever vengeful spirits were supposed to sound like. Cassie vaguely recognized the voice. It sounded concerned, and did not seem to mean her any harm. Be that as it may, she could not bring herself to look at it. For all she knew, spirits killed with some sort of enticing venom if mortal beings looked upon them...
“Mrs. Fields? Cassie? Are you all right? Please, give me your hand. I’ll help you up.” Cassie abruptly realized her error, and looked upon them. In circumstances like these, insurmountable fear must be replaced by some sort of complementary emotion. Embarrassment suits that purpose, as does vehement anger. Cassie was experiencing both. Colour flushed to her cheeks, and her eyes narrowed.
“What the hell are you doing here?” She spat out the words, as though addressing them to a creature beneath the reach of content. There stood Roger Hastings, looking decidedly at once sheepish and concerned in the dim light of the front hall.
“Are you hurt?” She jerked away from him, all but snarling.
“Get away from me, you bastard. What did you do, follow me home? I knew that there was something wrong with you the moment that I laid eyes on you. You have about thirty seconds before I call the police. What are you doing here? You’re getting your jollies in my dead father’s office, aren’t you? Answer me!” Hastings winced. His features were contorted with what appeared to be authentic compassion.
“Mrs. Fields, please, give me a chance to explain.” He reached into his pocket, slowly. Cassie’s eyes widened.
“Is that a gun?” The exclamation went unanswered for a moment. Hastings pulled out a small leather case, which turned out to be...a wallet. Cassie’s wallet. As he pulled it out with his pocket with mild exertion, a set of metal keys tumbled out and clattered on the ground. This was the set of house keys that she never used. Taking advantage of Cassie’s silent amazement, Hastings elaborated.
“I apologize for not being able to say a proper goodbye back at the bar. You see, I have developed something of a bladder problem in my old age. Alcohol does not agree with me, but there is a one drink minimum in that venue, and I did not wish to cause offence. It goes straight through me. So, the moment you got up, I raced away to use the facilities. By the time that I had gotten back, you were gone. I noticed that you had discarded this...” he gestured to the wallet, “on the table after buying your own drink. I would have returned it to you then and there, but it was too late by that time. Pardon this old man’s lack of stamina, but I could not have caught up with you before you reached your car.” Cassie processed all of this numbly.
“I don’t believe you. How could you possibly know where I live? How do I know you weren’t...” the words almost caught in her throat, “targeting me? Your wife is sick, right? Maybe you got sick of taking care of her. Maybe you saw a young woman in church who tickled your fancy. Some Christian you are. I’ll bet that you don’t even have a wife, do you? You just go to services every Sunday to decide who you’re going after next?” Hastings swallowed hard before replying.
“I found one of your husband’s business cards in your wallet. It listed your address, which happened to be on my way home. I must ask you not to mention my wife, Mrs. Fields. The subject is a very sensitive one with me, and, if nothing else, I ask that you respect my privacy...” Cassie cut him off shrilly.
“Privacy? Privacy? You have the gall to mention privacy to me? You have invaded my home! If that isn’t an invasion of privacy, then what the hell is?” Cassie was breathing hard. It wasn’t merely the idea that a stranger had been taking inventory of her father’s possessions which enraged her, but rather the disconcerting awareness that he had almost seen her at her most vulnerable. “Mr. Hastings, my husband is going to be home in ten minutes. If you are not a long way away from here by then, I won’t be responsible for what happens next.” Hastings raised his hands apprehensively.
“Mrs. Fields, please, hear me out. When I arrived here tonight with your wallet, I knocked for several moments. No one answered, and I discovered that the door was unlocked. Under ordinary circumstances, I would have waited outside, but my immune system is not what it once was. As a young man, I likely would have waited out there in spite of the rain. At my age, I cannot afford a lengthy hospital stay with pneumonia. I will be in the cancer ward with my wife all day tomorrow, and will most likely be there consistently from now on. In a couple of weeks, I will be visiting my daughter in Winnipeg. I’m afraid that we have not spoken in many years, and she is not aware of her mother’s condition. It is my dearest wish to see my Margaret again, to have the family together to weather out this crisis. My son, Elijah, travelled to the United Kingdom with me several years ago to assist me on one of my Druid excavation sites. Unfortunately, he was killed suddenly in a car accident while over there. I have never forgiven myself. Margaret was very close to her brother, and she has blamed me for his death these many years. Any indemnities she heaps upon me, however, are nothing compared to what I deserve. Had I not followed my silly dreams and brought my boy down with me, he would still be alive today. The worst of it is that I had endlessly encouraged Margaret to go on that same trip with me. International travel is certainly not an opportunity that comes every day, and adventures are even more rare at my advanced age. Had she come along, she may well have been killed in that car accident as well. In ways beyond counting...I feel as though I have been dead, these many years, or at the very least grappling with mortality. My dear, dear wife...she was the one who brought me faith, who introduced me to God and encouraged me to walk with Him. Ever since her illness, I have begun to question the validity of any deity who would allow His most devoted servant to struggle and suffer as she has. I have already lived to dig my son’s grave, and do not believe that I could bear to dig another for the woman who has brought me through these many years a new man. Many evenings, I have welcomed death myself. Often, I sit in empty graveyards as dusk falls, oblivious to all else save for my own heartbeat. And, the dreams...the dreams.” He shuddered. “I have seen an empty grave, awaiting her presence in it. There is nothing more devoid of purpose than a vacant tomb heading. It is relentless. I have also dreamed that...” His voice trailed off, and he shook his head. “Never mind. I am, perhaps, not as old as I appear. The tribulations of the last number of years have aged me prematurely. I am, in fact, only partially retired. Though there are some aspects of my job which I enjoy greatly, I welcome the freedom that will come with a full pension and free days. I have decided that, no matter how my wife’s situation turns out, I am returning to Europe. Either way, I will not be booking a return trip. Judith, circumstances permitting, has agreed to follow me there. If...if she does not survive, then there is little point in my remaining here to lurk around a grave. I have come to realize that Elijah would want me to follow my dreams.” He paused. “So, as you can see, it would have been near impossible for me to return here another day. I decided to step inside and wait for you here. Forgive an old man’s curiosity, but I was intrigued by some of the books in this office. Several of them are very rare volumes.” He gestured to an open volume on the desk. “I have been trying to find several of them for many years. I do not know if they are for sale, but I would be willing to pay a very fair price for them. I was so engrossed in reading that I did not even hear you coming down the stairs. Had I known that you would be returning shortly, I would, of course, have stepped outside and knocked properly. Circumstances being what they were, this was not possible. I hope that you can understand. If you still wish to call the police, then you are, of course, well within your rights to pursue the matter. I will not resist. In fact, if you wish, I would be happy to wait outside.” Now apparently finished speaking, he clasped his hands behind his back.
Cassie’s head was spinning. What he had said seemed to make sense, but there were still discrepancies in his story. She continued to speak with the frank sense of entitlement that was customary of someone who knows that they have been victimized, but her heart had slowed down by this point and some of the edge had left her voice.
“If all of this is true, if you do not drink, then what were you doing in a bar in the first place? If Harvey were sick, then I would be by his bedside, not farting around with my friends.” Hastings sighed.
“I’m afraid that the radiology ward at the General is very strict about enforcing visiting hours. I was very vehement about not leaving earlier tonight. However, I’m afraid that, had I continued to resist, I would have been escorted out by security. Exposing my poor wife to that would have been unthinkable. Poor bladder or no, there are rare occasions in a man’s life when nothing wets the whistle quite like a drink or two. I chose that bar, because...” he lowered his voice conspiratorially, in spite of the fact that they are alone in the room, “The Constantinople was built over what was once one of the most heavily populated Druidic graveyards in the area. I have spoken with the proprietor of the place before, hoping to turn the place into a heritage site, but he would hear nothing of that. Meeting you there tonight was entirely coincidence. I admit, it was very cathartic to have someone listen to me for once.” He smiled. “Tell me, Mrs. Fields, if I may be so bold as to ask, do you believe in ghosts?”
Cassie did not know what to think of this man. He seemed harmless enough, and it was certainly not unheard of for neighbours to wander into one another’s homes in these parts. He was practically a stranger to her, certainly, but, by the looks of the room, he hadn’t disturbed anything. His intentions, after all, had been good. Besides, Cassie was uncomfortably conscious of the fact that, had he wished to harm her, he could have done it long since and escaped without detection. She found herself nodding her head. Hastings gave her a fatherly, sympathetic smile.
“You are a very wise woman to believe so. Speaking as a man who has been virtually chasing ghosts for the last thirty years of his life, in a manner of speaking, I can tell you that there is a good deal of adversity out there. Others may ridicule my perceptions, but I know better than any other man what I have seen and believed. In fact, there are some people who openly scorn my profession, believe it or not. The human mind is a very complex labyrinth of neural passages which evaluates reality much in the same way as an onion is layered. We all confer certain layers of meaning upon our worlds which stand in defiance of any methodology of objective reason. Perhaps the beliefs of people like us are scorned by the scientific community, but the reality is that our obstinate belief in these things is the axis upon which their entire system of belief operates. Deny me my ability to maintain my beliefs, and they will have uprooted the credibility of their own profession.” He smiled again. “Well, individualism or no, I believe that people like you and I are right. There are certain paranormal events in life which cannot be reconciled with any idea of scientific study. My belief is not baseless, Mrs. Fields. I have personally seen, and communicated with, many an apparition. This Valley is heavily populated by spiritual imprints of every kind, ranging from shipwrecked sailors to deceased farmers wandering across the lands of their fathers. I admit that there was more behind my entering your home than completing a good deed. I have seen your property many times over the years, driving up and down the road outside daily on my way to work. It has always struck me as a very ancient and esteemed building, full of history and the personalities of its former owners. Really, I suppose that it seemed as though fate presented me with a golden opportunity tonight. Please believe me when I say that I would not have entered your home without permission under ordinary circumstances, regardless of how curious I happened to be. However, as I have already explained, I found myself in a unique situation tonight, and suppose that my curiosity got the best of me.” Cassie was still not entirely at ease, though Hastings did seem earnest. She thought quickly.
“Mr. Hastings, I’m afraid that I owe you an apology. It was wrong of me to judge you so harshly, but I was startled. I appreciate you bringing back my wallet very much, and want to return the favour. My mother in law and a couple of friends are due for dinner shortly. It would be my pleasure if you would join us.” Hastings inclined his head in acknowledgement of the apology.
“I would be delighted, Mrs. Fields, and appreciate the generosity. Of course I accept your apology. I was in the wrong, of course, though I appreciate you hearing me out. If I may say so, my dear, you were as white as a sheet when you came in here. I daresay that I appear as though I have one foot in the grave already, but, when you saw me in here, I feared you suspected that I had both boots firmly planted on the other side.” His words were gently humorous, and Cassie laughed gently. She got to her feet.
“Please, follow me, Mr. Hastings. I have a couple of final preparations to complete, but you are welcome to sit in the parlour while I do so. Would you care for a drink? My husband, Harvey, makes wine in his spare time, and he recently finished several bottles of Chardonnay. He keeps them around for our private use, but I’ve been trying to talk him into selling some of them for years. Men.” Now, it was her turn to smile, but Hastings shook his head.
“I’m afraid I will have to pass on the wine, Mrs. Fields, thank you. I already drank more than my share at the bar, and should not have driven over here as quickly as I did. I was asking for trouble. Of course, I will have to drive home later tonight, so it is probably best not to tempt fate.” Cassie, guiltily remembering her own near collision with the truck earlier in the night, nodded as she replied.
“Of course, that’s just fine. Please, come with me. I’ll find you a seat. The other guests should be arriving shortly. I hope you don’t mind the wait?” Hastings smiled disarmingly.
“Not at all. I welcome the chance to see a bit more of your home.” The two of them moved back into the hall as he continued to speak while observing his surroundings. “How old is the house, exactly?”
“It was built around 150 years ago, shortly before Confederation, by my great-great-great grandfather on my mother’s side, Austen Monteroy. At the time, Austen administered a sharecropping farm on the banks of the Cumberland River, and wanted a country home in the area. It’s been expanded on several occasions through the years, of course. At one point, there were extended family members and servants living here, so additional bedrooms and a cellar were added. Though the office you were sitting in was part of the original building, the rest of that wing was added by my grandfather, a well known judge. The library was created by him, as well. There was a minor fire here around the turn of the century which caused extensive damages, estimated at around $70,000. Every generation has left its own unique mark on the home.” Cassie imagined that she sounded like a tour guide. As they moved into the hallway, she knew that she could never communicate the unique mark that this place had left on her. It had been her home since childhood, the only one that she had ever known. Exposing its treasures to a stranger seemed sacrilegious, somehow, and Cassie felt that they couldn’t get to the parlour quickly enough. She had never been a very accomplished public speaker. As they proceeded down the hall, Cassie pointed out several of the oil paintings hanging from the walls, all of which depicted her ancestors.
“That’s Austen Monteroy, the original owner and architect of this home. To his right is Frank Monteroy, his son, and Frank’s wife, Irene. There was quite the scandal there, let me tell you. Some people in Halifax talk about them today. Beside those to is Edgar Monteroy, Frank’s eldest son. The man to his right is Joseph Cormac, my great-great uncle, a wealthy railwayman with connections to the Carnegies and a personal friend of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the author. This was before Fitzgerald had his Jazz Age collapse, you understand. Cormac was Edgar’s mentor and benefactor. He not only employed my great-great uncle after the great stock market collapse, but redoubled his fortune during the New Deal years. There is rumoured to have been something between them, though my mother never talked about that very much. Beside Cormac is Samuel Monteroy, my great-great grandfather, and his son, William, who made his fortune in oil. Down here at the end, of course, is my own grandfather, Judge Elroy Monteroy, and my late father, Charles.” She did not expand on either of them, and hoped that Hastings would not pursue the subject. Fortunately, he did not.
Cassie and Hastings existed the hall side by side, and were passing the billiard room when Hastings stopped in his tracks. Cassie followed his gaze, and her heart sank in her chest. She swallowed, anticipating the inevitable question.
“That’s my late husband, Gabriel. There was no more room on the wall,” she said by way of hasty explanation before briskly moving on. Hastings fell into step with her.
“I am so sorry, Cassie,” he said softly, using her given name for the first time. “Though I would never presume to understand your grief, I have seen a loved one at death’s door. If I may ask, how did he die?” Cassie’s step quickened visibly.
“Suicide. It happened over a decade ago now. He hung himself from a rafter in our shower.” Hastings said nothing further, though the damage had been done. If there had ever been any doubt, Cassie now understood that the man had been telling the truth about his wife. There was little use in the banal expressions of sympathy that had become commonplace in a politically correct world, like “I’m sorry.” True sorrow is as rare as true love, and Cassie could say within that context that she had no regrets. Sorrow is not the Kool-Aid of emotions the way that most people infer that it must be. The fact that he had the courtesy to leave her to her own thoughts communicated to her that he was all too familiar with the grieving ‘process,’ so much as complete neurological chaos could be considered a path. She appreciated that, and offered another explanation.
“As I said, my husband will be back shortly. I think you will like him. I remarried a couple of years ago now. He is a painter, though he is fond of biking, hunting, and making wine in his spare time. That’s a long story. You see, after we were first married and he came to live with me, he would always set up his canvases in the basement. At some point while down there, he discovered an old bottling set that my grandfather had once used to make wine, and he learned how to do it. He’s bottled all of our own brew ever since, which he says is a Maritime cliché.” She shrugged, and Hastings nodded.
“That sounds wonderful. It is unfortunate that I can’t taste some of it tonight. Another time, perhaps.” Cassie discerned the fact that he had just more or less invited himself back to her home, and wasn’t sure what to make of that. Her only usual guests were Cynthia and her mother-in-law, the detestable woman. The truth was she had no idea whether Harvey would like him or not. There had to be at least a thirty year age difference between the two men, and Cassie wasn’t entirely sure what had made her say that in the first place. She bit back a smile as she wondered if, perhaps, she was subconsciously seeking the approval of an older man with regard to her marriage. Her own father had died long before she met Harvey. Cassie began to feel like her normal self again. In fact, though she could scarcely believe it, she found herself warming to Hastings. He seemed to have a genuine interest in her family history, and it was rare that anyone took the time to inquire about her past. He seemed like a very worldly and enlightened academic who did not see his own knowledge as something to bludgeon lesser informed people over the head with.
No sooner had she and her unlikely dinner companion arrived in the parlour and she found him a plush armchair to sit in than there were several loud knocks at the front door. Offering an apology, Cassie beat a hasty retreat, resolving to return as soon as she could. Though Roger Hastings seemed like a pleasant enough person, she did not, as a rule, trust a complete stranger enough to leave him sitting in the nucleus of her life for too long unattended.
She opened her door to find Cynthia Hastings standing there, alone. Cynthia was a mousy haired woman of medium height, who was often reserved past all endurance, but who had the curious and often inexplicable habit of fits of flamboyance and exuberance at the least of likely circumstances. Her unremarkable brown eyes lit up as she glimpsed her old friend, and pallid cheekbones were animated with a smile which threatened to flood the entirety of her face.
“Cassie! How are you doing, darling?” Cassie braced herself as the other woman hugged her enthusiastically in the fashion that a small girl would, almost knocking her over. People who were not familiar with Cynthia might have mistaken her amiable airs as hypocrisy, as they were such a radical departure from her normal self, but Cassie knew better. Her old friend simply operated on crescendos of passion. She forced a smile.
“It’s wonderful to see you, Cynthia. Was Mark not able to make it?” Mark was the name of Cynthia’s husband and the father of her son. Cynthia shook her head.
“No, no, hon, he’ll be here in a minute.” Her momentary exuberance exhausted for the time being, Cynthia turned around, and Cassie’s jaw dropped. Proceeding up the walk was one of the most peculiar looking human beings she had ever seen in her life. From a distance, she would have believed him to be a decrepit elderly man, and she might have laboured under that misimpression even now were it not for his t-shirt, which proclaimed that “Satan is a Geek” and was complemented by black cargo pants. He walked in a very deliberate fashion, shuffling one foot in front of the other in a perfect vertical curve. This slow gait was most unfortunate given present circumstances, as he was by this time completely saturated from head to toe in rainwater. His hair was entirely white, and, although it had been storming for the last hour, he was donning what looked like a pair of designer sunglasses. As he approached, Cassie could tell that there wasn’t so much as a single wrinkle on his face, though by all other outward appearances he had to be at least sixty. The stranger even moved with slightly hunched shoulders, as though he was plagued by the early stages of arthritis.
At first, Cassie’s brain simply could not compute any connection between the individual proceeding up the walk and the smiling woman on the doorstep. Surely, there had been some mistake. For a moment, Cassie’s mind raced, trying to remember when she had last met Cassie’s father. On second thought, upon further scrutiny, this man did not appear nearly young enough to be an immediate blood relation (outside of his unusual attire, of course). More likely, he was her grandfather. For a moment, Cassie was on the verge of hysteria again. She already had two unexpected guests on essentially no notice. A third was out of the question. Cassie craned her head, trying to spot Mark as he emerged from the Charleston family car, a red Hyundai. From what Cynthia had told her, Mark was an exceptionally handsome man with a charming wit. The truth only began to dawn upon her as the stout, drenched figure weathered the storm and reached her doorstep. Cynthia took his hand, and the pair of them smiled at Cassie.
“Cassie, I would like you to meet my husband, Mark. Mark, Cassie.” The man appeared to be at least a head shorter than his wife, and his hunched shoulders were doing no favours for his height. However, as he reached out to shake her hand, Cassie discovered that he possessed the strength and voice of a much younger man than his appearance had led her to believe that he was.
“So this is the beauty queen of Dalhousie who my wife won’t quit talking about. It’s great to meet you, Cassie. My better half was telling me on the way over here that your home is over 150 years old, is that right?” Cassie nodded mechanically, and the dwarf grinned a hearty smile which, like his wife’s, hardly looked like it belonged on his face.
“So, what had my old lady told you about me? It can’t all be true, but no promises. I like what you’ve done with the place. I can appreciate history, though I generally leave that sort of thing to Cynthia. Me, I’m the idiosyncratic Yoda of the nuclear fissure world. I’m telling you, if you can’t fly it, don’t buy it. The market’s completely going in the direction of practical portability these days. Portable property, that’s where it’s at today.” Cassie stood there, completely flabbergasted by this latest development. Cynthia, who appeared as charmed by this incoherent techno-babble as another woman might have been by a poetry reading, was lasciviously grinding her hip into his. She was practically blushing like a newlywed.
Cassie escorted them inside, took their coats, and brought them into the parlour. Hastings had remained precisely where she had left him moments before, and appeared unfazed by the unusual appearance of Cynthia’s escort. As the dwarf moved forward to shake the older man’s hand (he incidentally appeared to be at least a score of years older than Hastings, though the body language he was exhibiting caused him to appear as though he were a much younger man), Cassie noticed that the back of his shirt portrayed an animated demon wearing overexxagerated spectacles, which he was pushing up a protruding nose with one claw. The animation was wearing a t-shirt depicting the Apple logo. Beneath that was a Geek Squad! logo.
Cassie promptly excused herself, and returned to the kitchen to finish preparing the food. Cynthia’s husband was a complete enigma to her. He comported himself with the enthusiasm of a 25 year old programmer, but looked as though he should be wearing plaid shirts and going down a wheelchair ramp into the grave. As she busied herself dicing vegetables, she considered his circumstances. Cynthia had certainly not made any effort to explain his condition thus far, and Cassie couldn’t exactly inquire about it. She began to wonder if perhaps their son had been adopted. Though she realized it was malicious of her to think so, she was entitled to her own thoughts, and wondered how someone could possibly procreate with that.
Moments later, she was interrupted again by two sharp raps at the front door, interspersed by precisely two and a half seconds. Cassie recognized the distinctive knock of her mother-in-law, and slunk back into the entrance hall with the sullen air of a reproved child. She did her utmost to arrange her features into a hospitable smile. In spite of this, she suspected that her smile more closely resembled a pained grimace appropriate to the sickbed of a close friend. She was sorely tempted to hum a melody of Ding, Dong, the Witch is Dead, but resisted with the utmost self restraint.
Veronica Fields was early, a most inconsistent revelation. Cassie mused that, had the old woman been late, she would have somehow found a way to apportion the blame to herself. Fortunately, the first several minutes of their evening were pleasant enough, as far as these things went.
Veronica greeted her cordially enough. Though hardly past her sixtieth birthday, the woman’s thinning hair already had the enamel coloured look of decaying rust exacted from one too many colouring jobs. Cassie happened to know for a fact that she used curlers. Her nose looked squashed, somehow, as though some person who meant her ill and sought to martyr himself for the good of the world had stepped on it while she was still too young to know what a class action lawsuit was. Her mouth was pursed in a thin line which always managed to look disapproving. That woman was a habitual finger shaker, and would jab the chest of Christ Himself if she believed herself to have been wronged. Her lips, taut under the best of circumstances, seemed to practically disappear into her face whenever she was in the same room with Cassie. She stood ramrod straight, at perpetual attention as though a small imp was constantly shoving a poker enema up her rectum.
In short, this was clearly a woman who ate laxatives and APES (Abnormally Prissy Evil Shits) for breakfast with a side of brandy and vinegar. So far as Cassie could tell, her eyelids had been surgically removed at birth, because she had never once blinked while observing her daughter in law. In fact, Cassie had only ever observed concentrated gazes like that at the Halifax Zoo, when visitors were watching an especially repulsive reptile in the Snake Pit. The woman looked as though she ought to breathe fire, but in actuality she inhaled and exhaled air in hasty snorts through her nasal passages, as though she despised the presence of the very oxygen which allowed her to sustain her life. For some unfathomable reason, she always wore a cloying perfume reminiscent of lilacs. It smelled like discount air freshener. Cassie had no idea what had happened to Harvey’s father, as her husband seldom discussed him, though she imagined that he had followed a magazine advertisement to nowhere.
Cassie wondered if she would have enough food for the surplus guests, though she knew better. Veronica always managed to find some sort of fault with the food, and sustained herself on a diet of spite and criticism rather than ever actually consuming food during these gatherings. Once, the infernal woman had stayed here for a week, and Cassie was convinced that she had survived for the entirety of that time on dust mites and retained fat lozenges, much in the way that an especially malevolent squirrel might store away nuts for a nuclear winter. This explained why she was consistently emaciated most of the time, though she seemed to inflate her body to three times its normal size during its frequent fits of rage like some Weight Watchers advertising campaign which tanked after it was discovered that the creative director had a fetish for dog shit. One day soon, she was going to implode, casting her soy bean of a heart out into fresh and fertile soil upon the dark urban streets of Halifax, where it would eventually germinate into a malignant tree that would tempt mankind into a new era of damnation and oppression which they would eventually come to believe was their own fault.
This indelible worthy now stood upon the threshold of Cassie’s home, unmistakeably bone dry in spite of the torrential rain. Cassie wondered if the elements themselves feared her wrath. She was clutching an enormous purse which more closely resembled a carpet bag than anything belonging to a civilized individual. Her arms were long and lanky, for all the world appearing as though they could be snapped in half as easily as chicken legs, but Cassie was not deceived. She knew that a small dominion of breath mints, pictures yellowing at the edges, rancid cigarettes, a faded Hitler Youth membership card, napkins, archaic receipts, small animals, and most likely a stunted leprechaun or two existed within the confines of this purse, and shuddered when considering the religious convictions of those oppressed little people.
Tonight, she was standing there resolutely in a knee-length skirt which looked as though it had been heralded as promiscuous around the same time as Helen of Troy was abducted. She apparently expected to be greeted. Cassie was unsure as to how she ought to approach this rusty old veteran battleship, given the fact that she had dispensed with the perfunctory niceties last time and simply barged into the kitchen, finding some sort of aesthetic fault with everything before collapsing into an armchair and demanding a whiskey. In spite of this, she managed an amicable wince.
“Hello, Mother,” she impressed in what she hoped was a delectably simpering tone. This elicited something which sounded like an exertion somewhere between a strangled sob and a belligerent growl from the creature which sounded as though it had no business anywhere inside a human throat. Perhaps she had said nothing at all, but a nearby cantering stray horse had farted.
Cassie did manage to escort her into the house eventually, though she was none the less flustered by the effort. Veronica seemed to be preoccupied with completely ignoring her daughter in law altogether tonight, which suited Cassie just fine. Astonishingly enough, she seemed to take an immediate attitude of affability towards the dwarf almost as soon as she entered the parlour. Cassie left them to chat as she returned to the kitchen to prepare the wine and refreshments. Clearly, she regarded him as a HELP (Hopelessly Elflike Little Person), who posed no immediate threat to what she acknowledged to be her own incontrovertible position of pre-eminence over the gathering. The two of them seemed to have counteracting personalities which defused one another in a civilized setting. His boisterous and irrepressible nature eliminated him as a target, as he seemed impervious to poisoned barbs of the tongue. Cassie supposed that Veronica found him so grossly offensive that he represented a totality of Otherness, in such a way as to run on a complementary parallel to the hideous reprehensibility of her own character. She simply did not know what to target first, which unhinged her sensory capacities to a point where they overloaded, leaving a curious yet vulnerable shadow of a formerly toxic self in its wake which resembled nothing so much as a bastardized grandchild of Santa Claus who got stuck with the last tragically hip elf on Take Your Kid To Work Day. Or, perhaps he was, unbeknownst to himself, in the first and final stage of interviewing for a position as the latest acquisition in the Ghoulish Carpet Bag of Death Land. In the meantime, Hastings was conversing in low tones with Cynthia.
Cassie hoped that he had introduced himself as a friend of hers from town. Cynthia would simply presume that he was a colleague from work, or something equally benign. She did not want the subject of their most recent encounter to become the subject of scrutiny at dinner in an anarchic free for all.
The shadows seemed to have grown longer when Cassie returned to the kitchen to get a start on the dishes while her meal finished cooking. Suddenly, she felt completely besieged on all sides. Just as the walls had begun to close in, she heard a door slam, and a jovial shout which caused her to practically melt with relief.
“Honey, I’m hooome!” Harvey was fond of using the lukewarm language which often cropped up in the occasional television that he watched. A chronic insomniac, he often browsed archaic 1960s sitcoms on the classics network as she slept. Tonight, the greeting sounded like nothing so much as the bugle call of a white knight in shining armour. She practically sagged against the counter with relief. The consternation in Veronica’s eyes always seemed to fade when her son was around. What was more, Cynthia’s dress suddenly seemed a good deal more plain now that Harvey was here.
A moment later, laughter erupted in the parlour, and Cassie smiled. Harvey was most likely doing one of his impersonations. He had a voracious and contagious sense of humour, capable of embellishing upon the many trivialities which people were too short sighted to perceive for themselves. His manner of making people laugh was just one of the many innumerable reasons why Cassie loved the man.
Facing the sink, she did not sense his approach until a moment before she was in his arms. Smirking secretly to herself, she kept her body rigid, and spoke softly.
“The vassal does return. What tidings from the Man Den?” He nibbled her earlobe gently, and Cassie felt familiar feelings threatening to overwhelm her. It was as though the feelings of anxiety were dissipating inside of her, to be replaced by a rising current of ravening flames. His left hand encircled her firmly while his right worked its way down her dress until in reached a bulge, the pocket where Cassie had stowed her wallet.
“The barman explained the situation to me. When I saw your friend in here, I put two and two together. You’re having a rough evening, aren’t you, honey? As usual, I can see that you’ve created a gigantic tower of tem-pest-uous fears, but we both know that towers are meant for rescuing. You know, I’ve built a tower of my own.” He proceeded to explain to her in a low voice exactly where his tower was located and how it could be breached, and Cassie felt her usual thrill of excitement at the prospect of pursuing the strictly verboten. She found herself scarcely capable of speech, but managed to choke out a whisper which would have aroused the most impervious male heart.
“Your mother, Harvey...she’s sitting in the other room...and I’m not ready...” His answer was a deliberate and steady one.
“We’re in this together tonight, babe.” His hands continued their odyssey lower, across the $2,000 gown that Cassie had inherited from her mother. Her heart began to race again, and she understood that she was contaminated, formerly lost in the passions of a disconsolate heart. The lingering vestiges of stress emanated out through her pores as her hormones increased their relentless tempo, driving her onward into still further states of arousal. She moaned his name.
“Harvey, my hands are covered with suds.” His answer was to raise her gown to her waist.


************

Five minutes later, a complacent Cassie emerged from the kitchen, artfully balancing six thin-stemmed wine glasses on a tray. A semester of waitressing in university had instilled this indispensable skill in her, and it had come in handy on occasions like tonight. Harvey had remained in the kitchen for the time being, offering to finish some of the dishes while she served their guests. He would be returning shortly.
Cassie felt devoid of the insatiable feelings which had plagued her all night. Now, she was all smiles, exchanging a joke with Mark as she distributed the drinks. Harvey had informed her that he was an albino. She sat down as inconspicuously as she could. The men were discussing stock options.
“Well, that’s all well and good, but it’s not a question of short term financial solvency when examining Nortel’s quarterly revenues. I’ve seen their corporate kickback numbers, man. Guys like that throw a bone to their friends, and leave the shareholders out to dry, no questions asked,” Mark interposed. “I don’t have money to burn on those clowns until I can liquidate some of my foreign stocks, put the layover into some offshore accounts, and use the revenue to implant some eyes in the back of my head. That ain’t gonna happen until I can pull off a patent on Swarm.” Hastings nodded thoughtfully while Veronica interjected.
“But what about your eggs, Mark? I mean to say, what makes you think that you can possibly invest all of your resources into this one project? What does your wife think about all of this?” Cynthia laid a supportive hand on the dwarf’s shoulder.
“Mark knows what he’s doing,” she said firmly. “We met for the first time back at Dalhousie, in our third year. He was very widely renowned even then as a computer prodigy, pioneering new technologies where others could only dream. He ran a bootleg software business out of his basement during a time when your average sized computer would have occupied the entire first floor of this house. Even though he had graduated high school two years early, and was barely eighteen when I met him, he knew more than most of the professors. Remember, Mark? Our first date was that goofy cafe, where you tried to explain Newton to me.” Mark smiled good naturedly.
“She’s exaggerating. The truth is that I have a kid to put through college in a couple of years, and have too much time to burn these days. Masstech doesn’t know how to treat their software people, so I threw in the towel and decided that it was time to move on. What’s the point in devoting your working life to a company that has nil pension benefits or real room for advancement? So, I decided that it was time to go back to my roots. Really, I had only two options. Either I could tabulate my odds on winning the lottery and play them out to my utmost advantage, or I could go back to my dream in college of ushering in a completely new era of software design. Companies like Microsoft have a monopoly on information which is unacceptable. We have a resource like the internet available for household use, and it’s only a matter of time before we start seeing a complete conversion from dial-up to digital. Unfortunately, this means that countless corporate mainframes will have access to encrypted data which could lead to very nasty results for the private consumer. That creates a market demand for my program, which, though still in preliminary stages of development, will definitely be ready to be circulated en masse by the turn of the millennium to coincide with the format conversion. So, that’s it, really. Figure out the odds on the lottery, or become a millionaire when I’m old enough to know better. Really, I didn’t especially want to work for a corner store that was in league with the Atlantic Lottery Corporation, which made the decision all the easier for me.” There were mild titters around the table. This time, it was Hastings who spoke up. He was regarding Mark with an indulgent air of characteristic possessiveness, as though regarding a carefully moulded protégé.
“But what is Swarm, Mark? What exactly does it do?”
“Well, Roger, most personal computers leave a digital footprint in cyberspace, as clearly visible as a physical equivalent in freshly fallen snow. Companies use this digital footprint as the basis for all kinds of profiling. Their most benign usage of this data is in the form of marketing, like spam ads and so on. As of now, though, there are virtually no laws in place which govern their usage of this data, especially as it relates to disclosure to third parties. You may think that this is harmless enough, but I happen to know personally that there have already been massive instances of identity theft which are directly attributable to this sort of thing. Unfortunately, any damages incurred as a result of information breaches are not directly insurable, which means that any third grader with a modem and a halfway competent knowledge of the internet can flush your life savings down the toilet without even feeling it. Imagine, if you will, the world’s fastest car, suddenly available globally to billions of people. Unfortunately, there are no roads, or traffic lights. The results would be catastrophic, would they not? Think of the internet in the same way. We have the technology, we have the means to attain greatness, but no way of regulating it. Illicit data disclosure is only the tip of the digital iceberg, though, but never mind. In its finished form, Swarm is a complex algorithm which, when installed, will distort and fragment a computer’s digital signature in such a way as to make it virtually unrecognizable to foreign circuit proxies. Think of these pulses as virtual sonar waves which snake out invisibly to retrieve and manipulate data. When they strike the firewalls of a Swarm equipped computer, that computer’s digital signature will appear to shatter. In a physical sense, the computer console physically blowing up at the exact moment it is being pinged would be the tangible equivalent to this sort of event. Basically, the series of encryptions which provide a digital presence for that computer will be completely eradicated through a very complex stream of coding and chaos theory, mushrooming out into cyberspace like an atom bomb. Picture a large child smacking a beehive with a large stick in an effort to get at the honey. He would have hundreds of individual insects on him in seconds. This is the spirit in which Swarm was inspired. Of course, I don’t expect to market this to the civilian market directly. That would be professional suicide in more ways than one. The military pioneered computers into a global industry, and it’s impossible to build a technology like mine from the ground up. Unfortunately, the implications of this are a bit counterproductive. I would ultimately be empowering the very people whose influence I am attempting to thwart. That is my primary problem at this point. Of course, there is also the constant concern that some other think tank with far more money and resources will achieve this before I can.” Veronica seemed to appraise Mark critically with the eyes that had always been so cold whenever they focused on her own daughter in law. She was scrutinizing him in a way that Cassie had only ever seen her look at her son. She spoke faintly.
“Well! You certainly seem to be on top of things, Mark. Though I will not pretend that I understood a third of what you just said, I wish you all the best with your professional efforts. Your son is beautiful, by the way.” She paused for a moment. “He reminds me of my own boy, from back in the day.” Cassie felt as though the wind had been completely knocked out of her. She did not know which astounded her more; Veronica’s unheard of efforts at conviviality, or the fact that she had just referred to Mark by his first name. Cynthia squeezed her husband’s arm.
“I really couldn’t be more proud of him, you know.” Veronica smiled at her, a sight which Cassie suspected would bring the roof down around their heads.
“And so you should be, my girl.” Harvey returned from the kitchen, and took a seat at the head of the table. He raised the fifth glass in a toast.
“To breaking ground!” Cassie raised her own glass and repeated his words, though none of the others at the table followed suit. They were all still staring, as though transfixed, at Mark, who had faintly coloured under the outpouring of positive attention. At long last, Cynthia cleared her throat.
“Well, that is all well, ladies and gents, but we can’t forget why we have come here tonight.” Cassie frowned.
“What are you talking about, Cynthia?” Her heart was palpitating in her chest now again. She was confused. Was this some sort of premeditated gathering? That was impossible! Hastings certainly could not be included in such a number. She had just met him earlier tonight. Sure enough, he appeared disinterested, staring at his napkin without saying a word. Cassie stared at Veronica. The old woman’s fond smile had faded, only to be replaced by her usual stony countenance. She appeared for all the world to be a particularly exquisite statue. Harvey looked just as confused as she felt. Mark was looking at his wife expectantly, and Cassie relaxed. Surely, this was simply one more outpouring of Cynthia’s exuberant nature, one more silly joke. Cynthia smiled levelly at her.
“Don’t be coy, Cassie. You know why we are here. I think that we should go through the nasty business beforehand, so that we can enjoy a pleasant meal and all go home satisfied. What do you say?” Cassie’s smile was frozen. Harvey was frowning as he turned to Veronica.
“Mother? What is this?” She completely ignored him, as she seemed to be disregarding everyone else in the room. Cassie played with her knife absently.
“I would say I don’t know what you mean, Cynthia, but, whatever it is, it’s not funny.” Her friend nodded sympathetically at her.
“The false modesty isn’t necessary, Cassie. I’m your friend, remember? You don’t have to hide behind any masks with us. If Mark is making you uncomfortable, then I apologize. The truth is that he was very fascinated by your story, and wanted to come along tonight. You seemed okay with the idea when we spoke about it the other week.” Cassie blinked. She had an absurd desire to pinch herself as Cynthia continued.
“You have been doing very well. Though the flower shop has been in steady hands during your incarceration and probation, they are very pleased to have you with them again. I just spoke with your probation officer the other day, and he said that Mrs. Christie gave you a glowing report when he spoke with her the other week. You have done very well at keeping a steady job, and we are all very proud of you.” Veronica emitted that choked sound once more.
“Speak for yourself,” she grated vehemently. Cynthia took a deep breath before continuing.
“But, Cassie, darling, you can’t keep overlooking the small things. You know that curfew for you is 7:00, and you were almost 25 minutes late, even though you knew that we would be coming tonight and surely had to be monitoring your progress. You entered premises where liquor was served, which is strictly prohibited by the conditions of your parole. That’s a misdemeanour.” She shook her head sadly.
“Why must you do this to me, Cassie? You know how much it hurts me, as your sponsor, to have to report all of this. Why do you disobey? Is it simply all an integrated fabric of lies, a world that you structure as a means to reorient yourself to the very idea of wrongdoing? But, none of this is why we are all here tonight, is it, Cassie?”
“I want to see that bitch fry.” Veronica. A solitary forefinger was abruptly thrust in Cassie’s direction, as though it had just been exposed to the fate that its owner had supposed. “She thought that I was coming next weekend to check up on her, but I bet that she damn near pissed herself when she learned that I would be arriving tonight. That’s just how people like her think. They can’t see past the end of their own noses. I bet that she was tearing around that...that...” the older woman moved the offending finger aimlessly in the air. Her highly exhilarated state seemed to prevent her from articulating what precisely she meant, so she reduced herself to glaring at nothing. “Parole. A pitiful excuse. I would have paid for her appeals myself, if the Good Lord ever heard of such a thing, just to see her writhe and burn in the flames of this world while Satan was stoking his fires for her. Healing circles. Bullshit, is more like it. My heart would have felt damn near better watching a thousand volts running through that miserable excuse of a brain bouncing around inside of her skull.” Cynthia carried on as though she had not heard the other woman.
“It started with the cats, Cassie. Surely, you knew that they would be missed. The store owner noticed something when you returned for a pet for the fourth time in as many weeks, and decided to check up on you. This made its way back to us.” She sighed wearily. “You killed them, Cassie, didn’t you? You slaughtered them. Every one of them. None of them lasted long, did they?” Cassie stared at the other woman. A strand of hair came lose, and drifted aimlessly down her face. She was mouthing something wordlessly. Hastings stood up, and spoke sharply.
“Enough. Cassandra, listen to me. You have created a synthetic web of lies to condone your wrongdoing. You have lied to yourself these many years in an effort to perpetuate a false identity.” His eyes were clouded with a strange intensity. “Gabriel understood, did he not? He knew that you would sell him out. You had the documents; a list of victims, enough evidence to put him away for the rest of his life. He was a megalomaniacal juggernaut, a man with such a raging sense of superiority that he demanded to be immortalized in a painting at the age of eighteen. You would do anything to please him, would you not, Cassandra? But, all of that was merely overt posing, a game of expert manipulation between two masters of deception. I am certainly not discounting his role in your wrongdoing. The two of you fuelled one another, and doubtlessly would have been caught far sooner had you operated alone. People like you are prone to blunder eventually, but the pair of you always took care of one another. When was the first one? Joanne McCarthy. Prom night, 1974. She called you vain, because you were putting on airs in a dress that had been out of style for thirty years. You didn’t like that, and decided that there was a score to be settled. So, you and Gabriel approached her as she was walking home that night. You raped and sodomized her before slaughtering her and disposing of the remains in a way which perplexed the greatest minds of CSIS for years. That first one ought to have been evidence. But, you were almost undone by the most innocent of technicalities. A classmate noticed during gym class that your torso appeared as though it had been ravaged, almost burned. Evidently, you attempted to exact penance upon yourself in accordance with your own perceptions of religiosity. Even at your most recent trial, the jury and even the judge were assuaged by your heartfelt professions of Christianity. You attended church near on every Sunday. I should know. I was there every week, keeping tabs on you, and have been since your release. This concerned classmate reported your condition to a teacher, and social services were called. By this time, your poor mother was horrified. She had raised one successful child, a son who went on to lead a perfectly normal and well integrated life. You, on the other hand, were trouble almost from the time that you could walk. By the time that you reached your nineteenth birthday, you had already amassed over 20 misdemeanour convictions in juvenile court. There would have been far more, but your father worked tirelessly to exonerate you and save you from jail time. However, even his best efforts proved to be useless. He even opted to open a firm within the home, as he could not bear to have sensitive documents relative to his daughter floating around a downtown office. But, the way that he saw things, he failed you. Eventually, his practice fell into disrepute due to your frequent offences, and he was forced to move out west to Ontario to start over. He divorced your mother, and pursued a new life. You singlehandedly destroyed your parents’ marriage. Your father paid child support payments diligently until your majority, but he cut off all support after that. He eliminated you from his will, because you never knew how to handle money. You always squandered it at the earliest possible opportunity on anything that caught your eye. When he died, the only thing that you inherited were his daily journals chronicling your behaviour and steps that he had taken to help you, as well as your own juvenile court records. The allegations of abuse that rained down on your mother after that episode in gym class caused her to bring you to me. You saw me frequently for the next year, until your mother lost all legal control over your person and could not obtain a court order to continue our sessions. You went your own way, spending two years at Dalhousie. Though you did occasionally hold gainful employment in those days, most of it consisted of waitressing strip bars and other venues with a considerable under the table margin of profit. You considered becoming a stripper at one time, but enjoyed looking down on such women because it appeased your malignant sense of virtue. Besides, you saw that enterprise as far too risky. Aside from your salary as a waitress, you embezzled other funds illegally and experimented with the abundance of illegal enterprises that run through such places. Gabriel was ecstatic. You ran a traffic in his counterfeit and false identification business, though that was never enough for either of you. The murders continued, as did your criminal activity, until your financial indiscretions were inevitably discovered, and you were fired. By this time, your mother was in very poor health, and you realized that your childhood home was likely to become yours after her death. Your father had not had anything to do with the property in years, and his influence was irrelevant, as the property was your mother’s asset. Your brother, the only other potential claimant, had long since developed interests in the United States and could not have cared less what became of this home, and even less about you, the girl who had been stealing his friends’ possessions by the time that she was seven. Your intuition proved correct. In one last gesture of goodwill under an appeal to the Christian morals under which she had lived her life, your mother allowed the property to pass to you, for you had nowhere else to go. Of course, her sacrifice could not have mattered less to you. It was merely the prospect of living rent free which appealed to your mind. Gabriel moved in with you after she was barely cold in her grave, and the two of you were married in a common law ceremony. For the next two years, Gabriel continued to run his scam operations from your cellar. He believed his knowledge of the new digital technology to be unsurpassed, or even too subtle to warrant consideration, but he was unable to operate under the radar of Mark here, who was working part time as a digital security consultant for a retailer which had just begun to transition its business online. Even he could not fully tabulate the breadth of Gabriel’s digital crimes, but there was more than enough evidence to incriminate him and put him away for the better part of a year. When he got out, he was a changed man. Previously, he had appeared to the world at large as charming, a charismatic young fellow on his way up. Jail destroyed all of the legitimate prospects that he had once enjoyed, and most of his illegal ones. He now had a life to devote entirely to crime, and his charming young wife. He had always enjoyed rough sex, but you knew that. It was part of his magnetism to you, the complete package. Anything that offered a taste of the forbidden, the illicit, was welcome as far as you were concerned. Perhaps you even began to enjoy it. But, he started to hit you. It wasn’t the violence that alarmed you so much as the prospect of an unpredictable side of him that you could never control. At one time, he even kept you caged in your own bedroom, did he not? You had known him since high school, but were terrified of him now. Then, he fucked up. While you were cloistered away in your room, he had no one to cover his tracks. He came to you in a panic, and you broke his balls. You threatened a plea bargain. He would spend the rest of his life spending 23 hours a day in a maximum security cell if he did not play things your way. You wanted a guilty plea in exchange for a character witness. Though you knew full well there was sufficient evidence to incriminate both of you and you knew he could never accept your ultimatum, you did it anyway. You told him that you, an intimate companion, would uphold his character in spite of the fact you knew full well that you would be seen as a witness under duress and this would support your own cause while at the same time damning his with faint praise. Besides, Gabriel was an ignorant bastard. He had no way of knowing that a testimony of spouses in Canadian courts in the instance of an accused violent felony would almost always be overruled. A character witness would accomplish nothing in the face of all of the voir dire evidence. No, you simply did this for two reasons. Firstly, you needed to buy some time before the police arrived, and you liked having your head intact rather than dashed against the wall. Secondly, you knew that man better than he knew himself. Turning to you at that stage to save himself was ignominious sacrilege to him. He had broken you, abused you, defiled you, or so he thought. Really, nothing could be farther from the truth. You thrived on the abuse, cherished every moment, because you knew that every scream, every plea for mercy, every wound, every drop of blood spilled, further enhanced the credibility of your own deception. You had no use for the man anymore. Chances were that you would have killed him yourself, but saw no need to further incriminate your own person when this could be played out as advantageous to you. So, you effectively gave him a knife and a vial, and asked him to choose. He selected neither, and, in one last move of egotistical empowerment, hung himself in the shower. You would have cracked open a bottle of champagne over the incontinent corpse, had you not known that the police often cited intoxication at the period of arrest in court. Seven counts of premeditated murder. Four downgraded charges. Five additional counts thrown out for lack of evidence. That was a small victory for you. Most of the counts that you were being charged with had been directly perpetrated by Gabriel, though there were other secondary counts, too. You could only be convicted as an accessory in the majority of the cases, although, at sentencing, the judge pushed the jury to consider the notion of lesser included offences. Your lawyer capitalized upon this as grounds for appeal, claiming that the judge had erred. You were convicted at the provincial court level, but, by the time that the case had reached the federal courts, most of the charges had been dropped or commuted. You ended up serving eight years in the state penitentiary for three simultaneous counts of manslaughter. Warden reports claimed that you were a model inmate, attending chapel every Sunday and spending your evenings sitting in the exercise yard, watching the coast. Upon your release in 1990, paroled early for good behaviour, you had nowhere to call home. However, there was one person outside who remembered you, one person who would vouch for your character and good intentions. That person was, of course, Cynthia. She had never felt vindicated by your arrest. She remembered Gabriel all too well, during the few occasions when you had been brazen enough to bring him by your college dorm. Your relationship with him emerged as a buffer in your friendship with her. She believed him to be completely and utterly dominant over you. Though your probation officer was reluctant to appoint her to the capacity of sponsor, given her naturally lenient and sympathetic nature, it seemed preferable to any of the alternatives. Of course, Cynthia felt moderately guilty, as well. After all, it was her own husband whose testimony had ultimately been the catalyst which turned Gabriel against you. She felt certain that you would despise her if you knew the truth, and perhaps even try to harm her or her family. She took a tremendous risk in working with you again. Eventually, you began living out of your family home again. You were court ordered to hold a menial position in what had formerly been your mother’s business, as no other employer in their right mind would hire you. Besides, you were not remotely interested in looking for a job. That is a trait characteristic of many psychopaths. You had little heed for your own future. That about brings us up to date.” Hastings rubbed his temples as though silently imploring a divine entity for patience. Silent tears were streaming down Cassie’s face as he continued. “Your probation officer ordered you to meet with Cynthia once a week to discuss your progress, which you have done. By this time, you were frantic, torn between the former inertia of your identity and the prospect of a new life in which you had no leverage. Gabriel was long dead and buried. You possessed the innate need to murder once more, but were unsure if you could do it again without him. However, there’s no place like home. At first, you slaughtered cats and other animals, an atypical and necessary precursor on the road to the real thing. By 1992, you had opened a halfway house of sorts, a community outreach program which offered rehabilitative services to prostitutes, the destitute, and other marginalized people who had previously served time. You ran this business out of your own home. Naturally, your probation officer was suspicious. He demanded that you meet with at least two people at a time, both of whom would later be obliged to file reports detailing their experiences with the courts. Of course, he overlooked the low education level of many of these unfortunates, some of whom could not read or write beyond an elementary school level. Though several of them failed to produce the reports early on, you produced these people for the police when they came inquiring. Naturally, the entire process seemed to become redundant after awhile. Once six months had passed, with law enforcement visiting every other week to inquire after these matters, the police did not begin to pursue these leads as consistently. Of course, they had no way of knowing that you had been fooling them since practically day one. After your release from prison, you had come into what remained of your mother’s private assets, a lump sum totalling approximately $200,000. You lost well over $120,000 of this in retroactive defence related costs and to tax purposes, though you were left with a sum of close to $80,000. During his lifetime, Gabriel had been in touch with over a dozen drug cartels in four different countries. You began corresponding with some of his former contacts, and converted nearly your entire sum of assets into crystal methamphetamine and other chemical based narcotics which were almost guaranteed to produce a dependency. You then provided these in excessive quantities for the desperate men and women who visited your ‘business’ upon their departure. When you learned of their deaths in the papers several days later of an overdose, you rejoiced. Oh, it was not ‘murder,’ certainly not in any legal sense which could directly indict you for anything else other than trafficking. That was only part of the beauty of it, to you. It was the prospect of free will which appealed to you. You were not injecting the drugs into the bloodstreams of your victims. They overdosed voluntarily, often after a considerable period of substance withdrawal and resultant illness. They were desperate in a way that few people cared to understand. In their circumstances, ‘free will’ is a useless oxymoron, but you, of course, knew that. It was not so much the idea of free will which excited you as the illusion of free will. The allure of such an idea was how you ensnared your former husband, utilizing him even as he believed that he was playing you. The double standard. In your mind, you likened the murders of these disenfranchised people to the murder of your husband. Again, you offered them a knife and a vial. They could either waste away in subservience to their own addictions at the immediate prospect of more, bleeding themselves away to nothing bit by incremental bit, or they could accept your dirty candy and ruin themselves in one last glorious high in which moderation was not even a concept. In many ways, this method of murder served you more effectively than shooting them yourself ever would have. It was your most elaborate heist of the public imagination yet. Not only did the authorities fail to notice what you did, but they inadvertently condoned it. After a time, in fact, several of the officers who had formerly worked on your case believed it to have been a good idea. For all outward intents and purposes, you were reformed, a good Christian woman who had misspent her youth, elapsed much of her adult life in the big house, and turned herself around. There are similar success stories everywhere. Though there were was a slight mortality rate, this was to be expected in your line of work. After all, you had no control over these degenerates. Occasionally, you would provide them with the drugs months after establishing initial contact, which meant that you could avoid all direct accountability while still achieving your ends. You even began to garner some provincial funding for the home, most of which you naturally embezzled and used directly as drug capital. These were ideal circumstances of functionality for you, and perhaps you could have continued this enterprise for years if you had not begun snorting the product up your own nose. Unfortunately, you were now the front woman in your own operation. If Gabriel had still been living, he likely would have foreseen this eventuality and prevented it from happening. Perhaps your inevitable indulgence was a rebellion against his memory, at least insofar as you are capable of cognitively processing motives beyond the level of instantaneous gratification. Perhaps you, like the overrepresented quantity of psychopathic narcotic addicts per capita indicted for drug related offences and living out their lives in prison, you believed yourself to be superior to the lures of addiction. It is possible that you, never a habitual drug user (Gabriel was always a complete abstainer from drugs and alcohol), simply wished to learn what the allure of hallucinogens was after listening to endless anecdotes of people who were trying to escape their influence. Maybe, like countless other serial murderers before you, you had grown tired of simply playing God and yearned for a new high. Regardless, your capital disappeared as you started to feed your own habit. You had no more concept of moderation with the narcotics than you did anything else, and as such were no more empowered over your own subsequent life than the very people you purported to help. As a result, you started to panic. Police and your probation officer were entitled to conduct drug screenings anytime that they chose. Though this was not standard in your case, as you yourself had no prior history with hallucinogens of any kind, any legal implication on your part, even the slightest misdemeanour, could result in an exercising of standard protocol, which could mean that your entire enterprise would be blown wide open. At the very least, you would be facing some stiff jail time. You became a nervous wreck. Your probation officer began to grow suspicious. Once, you were even so desperate as to shoot up in the women’s washroom on the same floor as his office prior to a meeting. Of course, by the time that the syringe was recovered at the end of the day, it could not be directly traced back to you. In spite of your latest addiction, you still possessed your former needs. By this time, police had moved on and were only conducting perfunctory checks on your front business. Though it is impossible to establish a precise date given the lack of forensic checks to this point, we believe that your first murder which can be classified as such occurred in something like December of last year. In spite of the fact that you were naturally disposed to symptoms of anxiety, and this was only worsened by the narcotics use, you were still sufficiently in control to cover your tracks. You buried the body in your cellar, and got the victim’s companion so high that he experienced a three day blackout. After that, you had your contacts create a paper trail which communicated to anyone who cared to pursue the matter that your victim, a habitual migrant, had departed for Vancouver, a city notorious for possessing the highest domestic crime rate. You continued on in this vein for several more months, until the police did begin to catch on and you began to unravel.” Mark, who had evidently heard all of this before, was reaching for his wine unconsciously. Hastings stopped him with a sharp look.
“Do not drink that.” He raised his glass carefully, and delicately sniffed at the rim, nodding his head in grim satisfaction. “Cyanide. A fast acting soluble poison meant to bring about a final spectacular coup de grace. Cassandra here realized that the authorities were closing in, and realized that she would never see the light of day again. One sip would have been enough to kill us all and herself as she drank our health.” Hasting’s eyes bored into Cassie vindictively. “Enough. You have been found out.”
To say that Cassie was stunned was a drastic understatement. She looked disbelievingly from one face to the next. With the exception of Veronica, every eye in the room was fixed on her passively. Hastings seemed to regard her with a kind of lofty satisfaction, like a predator who had at long last cornered its quarry. Harvey was shaking his head, plainly as perplexed as she was. It took Cassie three attempts to speak.
“This is unbelievable! All of you are obviously in on this, somehow, playing some sort of shameless joke. Cynthia lived with me through university. She knows full well about my problems with anxiety, and decided to do this tonight as a way to drive me insane! She has been jealous of me for years, ever since my early twenties. I was always better looking, better adjusted, more intelligent, more successful with the boys. Yes, Gabriel did...strike me on occasion when we were married. After his death, I was committed to a mental health institute for several years...voluntarily, I might add, as though that is anyone’s business. After my release, I did come back here. The only drugs I have taken in the years since are anti-depressants and Zolaft, prescribed for my obsessive compulsive disorder. When I was committed, I was on a suicide watch for several months, as I did try to harm myself on several occasions in my younger years.” Tears were streaming down Cassie’s cheeks by this point, and she was practically shouting. “After my release, the only support group that I participated in was a program for abused and battered women at the community centre in Halifax every other week. Your allegations about my cats were true, though it was certainly not I who killed them! I don’t know why they died. For many months, I was extremely lonely, desperate for companionship of any kind.” Harvey was smiling at her from across the table. “That was when my second husband, Harvey, came into my life. We decided to skip the big white wedding, as his mother...” here, Cassie shot a venomous glare at Veronica, “detested me. I know what this is about, Cynthia. You wanted my first husband. You always desired Gabriel, even though you were fully aware that he was mine, and could never be yours! You blamed his suicide on me, and you still do! You ended up married to that...that thing...because no one else would have you and you obviously desired his money. Don’t look at me that way, Cynthia! After what all of you have accused me of tonight, presuming to judge me through the basest of lies, I have no problem pointing out what you have surely been conscious of all of these years. He...” Here, Cassie gesticulated towards Hastings, “...is a burglar. He broke into my house tonight, and, when I found him in my father’s office, I thought that he was going to kill me! He is the murderer here, the psychopath, the drug addict, and I don’t know what else that he has accused me of being. He fed me some cock and bull story about his dying wife and family, all a desperate work of fiction, I don’t doubt. He stalks beautiful women through church and doubtlessly other public places, pursuing them and waiting for an opportune moment. This...Hastings...has accused me of the most detestable crimes, of driving others to despair and suicide with pills, of all things, an inadvertent method of murder to appeal to my own sadistic desires. He is the manipulator here! He will implicate me, convincing me of my guilt in my own mind, and, when I least suspect it, he will either finish me off or wait for my own suicide! All of you are parties to this, though you don’t know how duped you have really been. Cynthia despises me for obvious reasons. Perhaps Mark here did implicate my first husband in some sort of digital misdemeanour, but he was never prosecuted and everyone uses the internet as their own lapdog anyway. I downloaded a song off a website for free once. That makes me a cyber criminal! If he does feel guilty over perhaps precipitating Gabriel’s suicide, then I do not blame him, though I find this perception unreasonable. It was not uncommon knowledge that he was never a happy man. He was clinically depressed for most of the time that I knew him. My own childhood experiences helped me relate to him, and we worked through our problems with each other. Cynthia, if your husband is experiencing survivor’s guilt, then he has my sympathy, but there is nothing I can do for him. As for Veronica, she has detested me since she met me! She was always afraid that I was attempting to take her son away from her, because I was older than he was and had my own property! That is the end of it! As for my attempting to kill all of you here and now, that is ridiculous! The glasses were changed around when I came to the table. Even if a couple of them were not poisoned, they have all been rearranged. Why would I want to kill myself? My husband? You are all either crazy, or conspiring together. Now, get out! None of you are welcome here any longer. If I still see any of your faces in two minutes, I will call the police.” Mark was staring at her with livid incredulity written all over his face. His voice, when he spoke, was practically a snarl.
“You self righteous cunt. I happen to know that you mainly live off of welfare benefits in a home that was paid for a century before by ancestors who never fathomed that their gene pool could produce such an unfathomable piece of trash. You can’t even afford to fix your goddamn car. I’m going to end up with a traffic citation because of you. Cynthia and I had to park on the street, because your driveway is too small for two vehicles and we didn’t feel like walking three blocks through the rain.” For the first time all night, Cassie was confused.
“What are you talkingabout?” Mark made an impatient noise.
“You heard me! There’s a Ford Escalade sitting in your driveway with a flat tire. Go and see for yourself. Don’t you dare play coy with me. Call the police. They’ll tell you the same thing. And that lobby of yours...don’t even get me started. Christ. Was that a human hand on the wall? I was sliding on shitskates all the way in here, thinking that the floor was about to open up and drop me into something from The Brothers Grimm. Veronica was right. You surely would have removed all of that had you known well in advance that she was coming. She suspected that you would be near hysterical at the prospect of having company on such short notice, and would be preoccupied with the finer details at the expense of overlooking more important facts, not to mention the fact that you were hysterical at the prospect of your own suicide. But, there was no other way, was there? You didn’t want to spend the next thirty years shitting into a bedpan in an eight by five cell in solitary. But, all of that turned out to be irrelevant. Roger here got what he needed.” Hastings smiled humourlessly.
“What’s for dinner, Cassie?” A moment of clarity restored, Cassie answered promptly.
“Meatloaf. My mother’s recipe. Why?”
“Because I was in the kitchen earlier tonight, when you were upstairs. I found the remains of a human appendix and spleen under the sink, and found the disintegrated particles of something in the hamburger. You have put your grinder to good use.” Everyone present balked at this information, and Cynthia appeared as though she were about to throw up. Harvey got to his feet.
“Enough is enough, folks. I have to agree with my wife. Leave now, please, or we will press charges.” Cassie nodded numbly, and focused her attention on him. Cynthia followed her gaze in disbelief.
“Cassie? What are you looking at?” Cassie turned to look at her sometime friend as Hastings got to his feet, moved over to where Harvey was sitting...and seemed to move right through him as he sat down. Harvey seemed to spontaneously disappear into thin air. Hastings was wearing his grimly triumphant smile again, and Cassie felt as though her spine had been consumed by a block of ice as he spoke.
“Cynthia, I’m afraid that is between the two of us. Doctor/patient confidentiality. I’m sure you understand. Cassie and I will be seeing a good deal more of one another over the next few weeks. I’ve been appointed to assess whether or not she will be considered mentally competent to stand trial for fourteen counts of first degree murder, not to mention innumerable counts of drug trafficking which I’m afraid I will be unable to assess without the assistance of a pocket calculator. Perhaps I might have remained entirely ignorant if not for her error a few minutes ago. Six wine glasses? One vacant place at the end of the table?” There was a chiding smile in his eyes.
“Cassie, Cassie. I admit, your spectacle at the bar earlier was moderately amusing. Your ‘husband’s’ bike had broken down, so he had to ride back with a friend. Very convenient. Ghosts cannot manipulate physical objects, can they? This is not the first time you have been on those premises. Most of the clientele there knows exactly who and what you are. I should know. They feel perfectly safe as long as I am there, monitoring you at all times. Most of them do their best to play into your erratic fantasies, mainly because they wish to avoid triggering a breakdown. Gabriel doubtlessly rode in the passenger seat on the way home, and, when he offered to drive back into town to pick up the wallet that you had left, you had no choice but to believe that the car was gone from the driveway. This was my own meagre effort to persuade you of the futility of your fantasy world, but to no avail. You likely thought that you heard him departing from the house as I was pulling up. That was my own blunder, I admit, and somewhat inconvenient. Later, Gabriel likely arrived home in a moment of your most dire need, did he not?” Cassie’s mouth was opening and closing like a landed fish. The incongruity of her present circumstances was truly desperate. She was completely oblivious to the fact that her spiking adrenaline caused her pupils to dilate, though she was aware that it seemed as though every nerve in her body had been consumed by a nauseous fire. Cassie was blissfully unaware of a sharp ammoniac hiss as her bladder let go. Her eyes were riveted to Hastings, who now occupied Harvey’s former seat.
“His name is HARVEY, god damn you! Not Gabriel! Never Gabriel! My Harvey! His mother is sitting right there! What have you done to him?” Hastings continued to smile lightly.
“You live alone, Cassandra. You have lived alone ever since Gabriel died. There is no Harvey. There never was. He simply happened to be another finite imagining of your own very unique double standard. The hallucinogens were doubtlessly no help, of course.” Cassie continued to stare at him as the uniforms entered the room. She had never heard them breach the home, and she was scarcely aware of what she was doing as her nerves came to life.
Cassie upended her chair, and seized her dinner knife as she raced around the table with almost inhuman speed. She raised the knife, and, with an inhuman scream, raised the blade by its hilt and targeted Hasting’s jugular. Contrary to what she expected in the heat of the moment, the man did not flinch, or move away, or attempt to impede her in any way. He simply continued to smile as a minute look of hesitation consumed Cassie’s features.
“You cannot kill me, Cassandra. I am a bridge which sustains the co-existence of your polar realities. Killing me would invalidate your intrinsic centre of self, the ego which keeps you going from day to day. Doing so would cause you to lose what few vestiges of sanity you have remaining.” A white light seemed to course through Cassie’s brain as one of the officers tackled her, thrusting her body down on the table unceremoniously as he cuffed her hands behind her back.
“Cassandra Monteroy-Fields, you are under arrest. You have the right to remain silent. You have the right to retain legal counsel. You have the right to be tried by a jury of your peers in accordance with the writ of habeas corpus within a fair time, and to be released in due time if the detention is not lawful.” As the officer proceeded through her Miranda provisions, Cassie felt as though her head was swimming. Though dimly aware of the finite boundaries which comprised her sense of awareness, she believed herself alienated from any coherent reality, as though she were immersed in a dream. Something moved out of the corner of her eye. Harvey? He was there, leaning casually against the wall with a glass of the cyanide laced wine in his hand. Harvey downed it in a single gulp before haphazardly tossing the glass aside, where it shattered. He proceeded nonchalantly towards her, but...wait. His eyes, once brown and alive with merriment, were now as cold and empty as perpetual mine shafts. His short black hair, so similar to Gabriel’s save for its length, had grown inexplicably by several inches. A sadistic smile was playing across his features. The officer who had handcuffed her had moved away for a moment to jot something down on a notepad, and Harvey moved towards her from behind like the certainty of hell. Cassie had time for one final scream before a pair of hands colder than the grave closed around her neck, and began to squeeze. She met her fate in silent agony as the black tunnels enveloped her.


Epilogue



Six months later


The insipid professional was pleasantly surprised when the woman entered his study almost half an hour early. He looked down at the book he had been reading, plainly upset at having been distracted from it. He met her gaze with a characteristic smile and rose to shake her hand.
“You are early,” he said. Veronica Fields shrugged impatiently.
“Yes, well, your receptionist claimed that you had no further bookings for this afternoon. I am a busy woman, and you plainly have nothing but time to burn. We had might as well get started early.” Veronica’s enormous handbag had been replaced by a thin French purse today, though her attire was as bland as always. Roger Hastings, PHD, raised his eyebrows until it seemed as though they threatened to fall off of his face.
“Well, as you wish. I do appreciate the books, by the way. Many of the Monteroy/Brunet volumes are worth a fortune, and I have been unable to locate some of them for many years. Perhaps, now, I will at last be able to publish my research on the Druid legacy in the Maritime provinces.” Veronica waved her left hand dismissively.
“You are a fool, as far as I am concerned. Why on Earth should a successful clinical psychologist who makes at least as much a year as I do chase a slew of ghosts that have been dead for over a thousand years? It makes no sense.” Hastings attempted to balance a pencil on its sharp nub with his right hand, and winced as it fell over a moment later.
“I’ve been trying to do that since high school. In fact, I spent most of my university years doing the same thing, figuratively as well as physically speaking. I detest my job, Veronica. I always have. Exorcising ghosts from the recesses of the human mind simply is not the same as confronting them on their own terms. My BA in psychology was BS, as far as I was concerned. No matter how many letters lined themselves up behind my name, no matter how high my obligations to improve myself mounted, I always wanted nothing more than to be a historian. I’ll be completely retired soon, you know.” She gave him a look of equal measures pity and condescension.
“Fiddlesticks! A man like you will be back in the classroom, trumpeting your exasperatingly obscure material in no time. Maybe you were only one more professor vying for the grant game before, but you have resources of your own to squander away now.” He chuckled before steepling his hands on his desk, the pencil forgotten.
“Mrs. Fields, we should get down to business. I invited you here today because I’m afraid that I owe you an explanation. It would seem that my now deceased client was badgering you for years, and had apparently vilified you considerably.” Veronica sighed. The sound was reminiscent of an exhaust port on an especially offensive car.
“Yes, I’m aware that I was the pseudo-neurotic Darth Vader of her funny little brain. The evil stepmother, come to burn away all of the sugar and spice and everything nice. Then again, perhaps you will understand why I may not have exactly loved her to no tomorrow. Ever since she was a teenager, I always knew that this woman was bad news.” She sighed. “Gabriel...Gabriel was a mistake. I was a young girl away from my repressive Catholic parents at college for the first time in my life. I could never even remember who the father was. My parents insisted that I carry him to term, and I spent the next two and a half decades of my life in an almost constant state of worry. He had committed his first felony by the age of ten, and continued to aspire to still greater things after that. I met Cassandra Monteroy for the first time when she was barely sixteen, smoking a joint in a backseat of the family Ford. I made her tell me where she lived, in spite of my son’s protests, and practically dragged her to her home by the ear, expecting that her parents would deal with her appropriately. Well, in spite of the fact that this was nearly 9:00 at night, there was no father anywhere in sight. This was before the heyday of divorce, you understand, so it was unusual to not see a man around the house in those times. Her mother, a woman who hardly looked at home in her own skin, greeted me at the door. Contrary to taking her unruly child in hand, she made excuses for her! I was livid. I forbade her from ever seeing my son again. I told her that if I ever saw her on our street again, I would call the sheriff. Perhaps you might imagine I was overreacting, and maybe I was, but there was something about the girl from day one which always convinced me that she was no good. Call it a mother’s intuition.” She took a ragged breath.
“Granted, my son didn’t need her help to get into trouble. He spent most of his senior year of high school in the reformatory down in Glasgow. I was at my wit’s end. Naturally, you can imagine who Gabriel escorted to the prom. He had no plans for college, of course, and by this time was only home at odd hours. I don’t believe that I once saw my son sober for an entire year. My first response whenever he did not return home for a couple of days was to call the police to ask if they had his name on file. By some miracle of nature, Cassandra had made it into Dalhousie, so I suspect that he was visiting her a great deal of the time. By the time that a year had passed, I reached my wit’s end. He told me that he was moving in with Cassandra somewhere, and I practically pushed him out the door. I never heard from him again. As far as I was concerned, I had put in two decades of penance for a sin I had committed when I was near on the same age as my own son now was. I didn’t hear from him for the next eight years until the police and paparazzi were lined up at my door. At least he had the common decency to kill himself. That was my son’s legacy, always avoiding punishment whenever it was due. Now, Dr. Hastings, I have always been an advocate of the death penalty. I had known Cassandra during a period of her life when no one else had. Her crocodile tears and suasions of piety in the courtroom did not move me in the slightest. Unfortunately, I almost ended up getting charged with contempt of court myself for what that faggot judge called my ‘courtroom theatrics.’” She rolled her eyes melodramatically, clearly believing that she had been wronged. Hastings nodded sympathetically while wondering why a man who had spent almost 25 years silencing Voices of the Great Periphery and spending his evenings shouting tipsy advice at television psychics had yet to master the aerodynamic properties of a thin finger of lead.
“So, they gave him a box, and a heading, and that was the end of it. I was sure I had heard the last of the matter until the DA’s office to let me know oh-so-politely that they would be turning her loose on the 16th of the month, et cetera, and how would I like to involve myself in the healing circle. You ask me, that’s a bunch of Injun claptrap. It takes a community to raise a child, and look what that did for Gabriel. After thinking about it, I decided that, yes, I would take part in this song and dance. That being said, I wasn’t in it for the self discovery humanitarian hula dance. I did my utmost to make that woman’s life the living hell that it ought to have been. Make no mistake, I don’t blame her for what happened to my son. In Gabriel’s case, it was an instance of good riddance to bad trash. That’s simply the way the world works. He was born in sin, and grew up bad. After spending several months observing Cassandra, I determined that she wasn’t as bad as Gabriel had been. She was worse. Her eyes resembled nothing so much to me as ticking digits, waiting to blow. I’ve met her like before. They’ll sell you your own shit back for twice what it was worth in the first place.” Hastings was careful to nod at what seemed like appropriate intervals while maintaining careful eye contact, blinking at predetermined intervals of thirty seconds while discretely adjusting the band of his underwear underneath the desk. It had begun to ride up his crotch, and he was in desperate straits. He was positive that fabric softener caused haemorrhoids. It was one of the sage bits of wisdom that his mother, a former Vichy Frenchwoman, had imparted to them. Some men comb their hair every morning as a gesture of filial piety. Hastings adjusted his underwear religiously while listening to the storming Jesuit on the radio talking about erectile dysfunction and obsolete dingbats.
Mrs. Fields was a harmless busybody who seemed to enjoy relentless chattering. He yawned inside of his mouth. This was an imperative skill to develop as a clinical psychologist, in the same way that RCMP sentries needed to learn how to sleep while standing at attention. A faint buzzing was audible from the corner of his office. It would appear as though a trapped fly had somehow managed to wander in here. Hastings detested flies. He wondered absentmindedly if he could fry it with a laser pointer without attracting attention, and adjusted his lapel in a way that most people interpreted as an unbidden signal to shut the hell up, why dontch’ya. Mrs. Fields carried on.
“But, of course, it’s impossible to obtain the diagnosis at such an early age. Men of your profession tend to shy away from labelling young children as psychopaths, but, in this case, I really must insist...” Hastings farted into his chair. He was careful to angle himself in such a discrete way as to ensure that the majority of the expelled gastrointestinal air settled into the fabric of his swivel chair. Hopefully, Mrs. Fields would smell a rat. He waited patiently until she had finished her latest rhetorical tirade before daring to venture some observations of his own.
“You must understand, Mrs. Fields, that people like you and me have one set of norms and values which tend to define some ideas of self. The majority of people act within utilitarian boundaries of right and wrong in accordance with primal ideas of punishment and reward. Most people learn early on that it is wrong to take advantage of, unduly manipulate, or harm others because they develop a faculty of empathy after evolving a sense of self. This principle of self is the means through which we relate to everything else in our world. It is the root of all social mechanics and relationships. Do onto others as you would have them do onto you is so firmly ingrained into the human social consciousness that it is almost entirely instinctual. However, women like Cassandra never develop a full sense of self. To some extent, their perception of themselves as a person is stunted, and so they often do not have a true idea of what constitutes other. For instance, when Cassie lied bluntly, to our faces and in contradiction to all evidence which disproved what she was saying, it is entirely possible that she, at least, believed what she was claiming. Psychopaths do not lie the way that most people do. Most of them are pathological liars. However, this is not to say that they do not experience some level of remorse. There is no such thing as a textbook ‘psychopath.’ While Cassie doubtlessly met some of the listed criteria from a very early age, she manifested her emotions in very interesting ways. For instance, when I put the pieces together and was certain of her guilt, I entered her home with a search warrant. Though a forensics team had wished to enter the premises first, I wished to reach closure in this case on my own. I found a carefully documented list of her victims in a recipe box, beside an ingredient list for cabbage casserole. Psychopaths so fully integrate the fabric of their crimes into their lives that they cease to acknowledge it as remotely abnormal activity. What really interested me about Cassie was her propensity to engage in compensating behaviours as a way to assuage feelings of guilt. Take, for instance, the incident with the shower when she was still in high school. I do not believe that her leaking that incident was deliberate. By that point, her mother was a complete nonentity, ill more often than not, and drawing attention to herself at that point would have been foolish. Revealing it was a complete accident. Had she not pulled that stunt, I never would have met her. No, Cassie did that because she deliberately wished to harm herself. Obsessive compulsive self mutilation is common among clinical depressives and the like, but certainly not psychopaths. I saw recurrences of this behaviour over the years. It was not one time grandstanding for attention. In fact, if you want to know the truth, her behaviour reminded me of my cocker spaniel, Tiger. Obviously, Tiger has no real conceptualization of virtue or any construct of the like, at least not in the way that humans recognize them. Normally, he is a very excitable dog, but, when he knows he’s been bad, he will often crawl into his basket and stay there, sometimes for hours. Cassie was exactly the same way. She had some thriving desire of inadequacy, if there can be such a thing. She desperately wanted to know what it was like to experience guilt, and so exposed herself to those things as a way to instruct herself in the methodology of guilt. To Cassie, only direct feelings of physical pain and fear of the abstract could evoke a state of mind remotely similar to what most people recognize as remorse. So, she created ghosts. She created omnipresent entities who could counteract her incognito crimes. A ghost would see her burying those carcasses in the dead of night when the police were on the wrong trail, and could not hold her accountable. She was like a child miming good behaviour for Santa Claus. I doubt that she truly believed in God, but professed her faith and perhaps believed that she believed. You see, an oversimplification of this might unfold as follows. Most people think with some synthesis of their hearts and minds, but the psychopath thinks exclusively with the head. This creates a schism between thought and desire,” he said. Mrs. Fields was watching him intently.
“You dealt with her for years. I don’t know how you managed it, but there you are. She honestly betrayed no signs of recognition? I can’t believe that.” Hastings chuckled quietly. Cassandra Fields had been a leisurely stroll through the park compared to many of the abnormal cases that he had to deal with. The worst ones were the sane people. The fly was still buzzing in its corner.
“Yes. I met her just short of her eighteenth birthday when I was still employed by social services. Years later, I re-encountered her case file again, and decided to give it a go. By that time, I was working out of this office, and more or less autonomous in my business practices. We had dozens of consultations while she was still incarcerated, and I was directly approached by the parole board in the weeks and months leading up to her hearing. I gave them the green light, and she was released more or less on my recommendation. Of course, I regret that very much now, but there you have it. At the time, she had served a lengthy sentence, and I failed to see what serving the difference in time would do. With someone like Cassie, a structured environment is imperative. Unfortunately, prison provided precisely that. It is commonly reported that most career criminals sooner or later become accustomed to life inside the big house. They are desocialized, figuratively speaking, and do not know where to go when they are released back into society. Resocialization programs have their benefits, but they are useless charades for a psychopath. No, I believed that it would be a better use of taxpayer money to release her back into society under the immediate supervision of someone who knew her condition, who understood it and allowed her to operate within a framework of her own devising while being monitored. To answer your question, no. She did not recognize me. When we first met earlier on in that critical evening inside of The Constantinople, she certainly betrayed some signs of recognition. Perhaps she did not know who I was, or even encounter a sense of déjà vu, but she knew that something was not right, that I meant her harm in some way which she could not articulate.” He chuckled again. “In fact, I have reason to believe that she considered me one of her ghosts. That, naturally, brings me to my next point; the alleged apparition which she called Harvey.” He shifted in his chair again.
“Harvey was a mosaic of everything that she had once considered desirable about your son. His name cropped up more than once during our sessions. Often, I used methods of hypnosis to learn more about who or what she believed him to be. She was not sure precisely when she had first met him, claiming that the memories were all jumbled together. This is a typical trait of the psychopath. Many of them have only a nominal awareness of time, much in the same way that a child might have difficulty understanding concepts like ‘the day after tomorrow.’ Often, they do not remember a great deal about their past, at least less than an ordinary person might, and have difficulty planning for their futures. When I asked her about her second wedding, she described a couple of memories that she recalled from her marriage to your son. Harvey and Gabriel were similar in many ways. Aside from both being avid outdoorsmen, they looked a great deal alike as well. However, there were also very distinct differences. Harvey was a drinking man. By all accounts, Gabriel seldom touched a drop. Whatever else may be true about him, Mrs. Fields, he was never a drunk. You will note that Cassie attempted to kill us all with wine. That may seem irrelevant, but it likely meant a great deal to her. Gabriel was strictly patriarchal. If he did not drink, then chances are that he forbid her from doing so. During her erratic phase of killing, she murdered several of her victims using dissolvable poison in alcohol. This could either be a twisted validation of Gabriel’s regime and contingently her own sensibilities by directly introducing alcohol as a harmful agent to corroborate his worst fears, or it more have been more straightforward than that. Harvey was an accommodating man, eager to please because Cassie wanted to feel pampered, attended to in every sense. He was the same age as Gabriel was when he died, though Cassie was insistent on the fact that she was the older partner in the relationship. She and your son were the same age, give or take a few months. However, she was considerably older than Harvey. Cassie was adamant about that. Her observation of this time paradox is characteristic of the way in which she regarded in the world. We all have our own little idiosyncratic contradictions in thought and belief, but Cassie’s were much more central to her life that. There is obviously a very thin line here between extrasensory hallucination, prevalently associated with conditions such as, say, schizophrenia, but the answer is much simpler than that. Quite simply, we all see what we want to see. If one repeats a lie to oneself for long enough, that lie and truth are often seen as interchangeable. Cassie had no precepts of truthfulness or lying to begin with, so she was not actually deceiving herself. Most people assess society through a set of mutually recognizable antonyms, but Cassie was completely off the map. She conferred her own meaning on the world around her while still remaining very much functional and sane. Seeing someone like me, someone who exercised a mental foothold in both her present ‘self’ and her former one created a sense of déjà vu akin to an ordinary person witnessing a ghost. It is entirely possible that she might have encountered this same feeling around other key figures in her past, but, to my knowledge, there was only one possible candidate. Both her mother and father were long deceased. She has not seen her brother since shortly after her father’s demise, and he had been a stranger to her since her earliest years. Even the woman managing her mother’s shop, Mrs. Christie, was new since the period of Cassie’s incarceration. Most of her old school friends had left town or no longer had anything to do with her. The sole exception was Cynthia. However, the truth is that this example is simply another instance of the megalomaniacal nature of many psychopaths. Cassie clearly felt superior to her former friend in every sense, as she herself said. In short, Cynthia was assimilated into Cassie’s perception of everyone else. Cassie did not see her as a friend or ally, but rather as one more person to be duped and used. However, it is plain that she perceived me as something of an enigma, and possibly even an equal so far as psychopaths are capable of recognizing equals. She had certainly reposed more confidences in me than in possibly anybody else, living or dead. That could set any person ill at ease, and, to a psychopath, such a relationship creates all sorts of implications and possibly even self loathing. It is possible that she treated our meetings much in the same way that an ordinary person might overcome a fugue state. My techniques used during our meetings, particularly hypnosis, could well have exacerbated that. Plainly, she did not remember me, but understood that I posed a threat to her in a way that the boundaries of her own chosen reality would not permit.” Mrs. Fields sighed.
“Well, that’s all well and good, but I still have a couple of questions I would like to have cleared up. Why the name Harvey?” Hastings hesitated before nodding slowly.
“I believe that my colleagues would most likely refer to Harvey as a product of a malignant narcissistic mind. He was a presence crafted directly after her own image. This is another trait which distinguishes Cassie’s case from that of, say, a schizophrenic. Someone with that sort of condition actually believes that a dead person is communicating with them. That person is not a ghost, or an imprint, or anything like that. The person is right there in the room with them. Harvey was not Gabriel, or she would have used the names interchangeably. Cassie always acknowledged that Gabriel died. She never disputed that fact. It goes without saying that I wiretapped her phones, and read many of the transcripts. After her release from prison, one of the many foreign entities she dealt with and purchased drugs from was a Puerto Rican outfit. Their kingpin wanted a green card, and was willing to pay her an extravagant sum in narcotics for one. Naturally, she still had all of Gabriel’s old forging equipment, but she knew next to nothing about how to operate it and could not be bothered to learn. As a result, she could produce birth certificates and other papers with a list of about half a dozen names that were already in the system, one of which was Harvey. Perhaps she associated the name with Gabriel, though it is more probable that this particular selection was one of the rare marriages of Gabriel’s achievements and livelihood and her own ingenuity. He had come up with the name and the business; she used it to achieve her fortune and meet her own ends. It was simply another method of the empowerment, a name for her Frankenstein. Or, perhaps she simply liked the name Harvey. Evidently, she still considered you to be her mother in law.” His lips twitched humourlessly as Mrs. Fields spoke up again.
“I found the way in which she died very unsettling, handcuffed against her kitchen table. Oh, there is no doubt in my mind that she deserved that and much worse besides. However, I recall observing her expression at the moment of her death. The woman was petrified, positively beside herself with a fear which transcended even that unusual situation. Oh, she feared for her own person in the event of her detainment, I don’t doubt, and perhaps even the circus of a trial that would surely follow. However, this expression was cold blooded terror. You witnessed it as well as I did. What happened?” Hastings took a deep breath and let it out slowly, removing his glasses and placing them down on his desk. He polished them with the sleeve of his jacket before placing them back on the bridge of his nose .
“Mrs. Fields, the truth is that I could speculate with you all day as to the manner in which Cassie met her end. The official cause of death on her report is that of a stroke. A blood vessel in her brain ruptured from lack of oxygen, flooding her brain centres and causing death within seconds. She likely had just enough time to realize what was happening before she lost consciousness. That in of itself was peculiar. Cassie was a heavy user of several different potent drugs, which likely clashed badly with her prescription medications but which would have significantly impacted her system anyway. Habitual recreational drug use with those sorts of compounds can weaken cell concentrations in the brain and other parts of the body, significantly heightening the risk of strokes and other health conditions. I would not rule out natural causes in the form of a stroke, even though she was reasonably young. However, the post-autopsy evaluation concluded that the blood leakage was likely caused by a lack of oxygen resulting from suffocation. Cases like that are often seen in situations like crib death and strangulations. In the moments before her death, when she was still fully responsive, she demonstrated several symptoms of a body that was shutting down. For instance, I noticed that her eyes were considerably dilated, though this can also be a symptom of stress. She also voided her bladder, though this too can be stress related. She was under a great deal of excitement. We also cannot forget that she was in a very fragile mental state. In addition to the heavy drug use, she was in a very unique mental state involving all manner of chemical imbalances. That could only hurt her chances. As to what we saw in the final seconds of her life, the mind can witness all sorts of strange phenomenon when it is on the verge of death. I could not even begin to guess what a mind like Cassie’s might have witnessed.” He sighed. “The truth is, Mrs. Fields, that I say hang it all. Perhaps there is a clinical explanation, or several contending ones, but it all boils down to this. God works in mysterious ways. That’s all that can be said for it.” Hastings noted that the fly had managed to make it out through the open window, and Mrs. Fields sat back in her chair.
“You have certainly profited very nicely off of all of this,” she said. “When is your book due to be published? I understand that your publishing company is anticipating a bestseller.” Hastings forced a smile.
“Yes, it is a departure from tradition for me. As Cassie has no direct heirs or relations concerned in the publication of this work, I do not have the fear of lawsuits that a biography might ordinarily produce. Of course, were this not my final nest egg before retirement, this would virtually be professional suicide when it comes to rapport with clients. Still, it should do nicely. I intend to use the proceeds to return to England with my wife, where we will pursue our dream of learning more about the ancient Druidic civilization. I have just about finished my research here in Halifax, and that manuscript should be due out in a couple of years. If there is no market for the manuscript, then I will simply use my own resources to publish it myself. I daresay that finances will not be a problem. There are talks of a movie in the works.” For perhaps only the second time in living memory, Mrs. Fields smiled.
“I was pleased to hear that your wife’s tumour turned out to be benign. I dearly wish that I could accompany you, my old friend. This has been a sordid business, and I have always wanted to return to Europe. Perhaps someday, but I have my own affairs to look after in this part of the world.” Hastings shrugged.
“I will remain in touch, at Christmas and the like. What of the house? Have you managed to sell it?” Mrs. Fields shuddered.
“Indeed. I regret to say it, but I am in dire need of the money. I sold it to a charming young fellow and his wife. The man is young. I believe that he came into money of some kind, though the house was greatly devalued after all of the antiques were removed from it. I donated most of them to heritage museums.”
Roger Hastings got to his feet and strolled to his office window. He had begun to develop a faint arthritic twinge in his right leg, which caused him to limp in a moderately discernible fashion. He clasped his hands behind his back, and stared out grimly at the bustling Halifax street below.
“Thank you again for the books. It has always troubled me that successful men proficient at little else than making money insist on collecting rare volumes for display, while the most impoverished scholars among us would sell themselves into indentured slavery for those resources. Talk about a double standard.”


************


In fact, Veronica Fields had sold the Monteroy manor to a successful young writer and his charming wife. They were very much taken with it, and, before long, there were plenty of young feet racing down the corridors. Some evenings, when his wife was fast asleep, her husband would awaken in the dead of night to a curious noise. It almost sounded as though the shower was running on full blast, and, once or twice, he even thought that he heard a woman’s crying. However, whenever he wandered into the bathroom to check, it would always be completely still. In his semiconscious and bewildered state, he always resolved to sell the place then and there.
He never did.







[1] A reference to the Order of the Templars, an order of knights commissioned to carry out Papal mandate until said order was disbanded and its members eliminated in accordance with Edict 66.

[2] The document signed by King John the Usurper in the 12th century, which ushered in a new era of representative democracy in contravention of what was to that point an ostensibly plutocratic state. It is often seen as the foundation of today’s civil statutes.

[3] Former British King Charles I was executed by decapitation at the hands of Cromwell’s Puritans in 1694.

[4] Milton’s “Paradise Lost” is a classic encapsulation of many Enlightenment sentiments. It depicts Satan and his host of fallen angels as amicable revolutionaries who strive to better their own lots through dissidence and rejection of what they see as a counterproductive dogma.

[5] In the Hellenic pantheon of gods, Hephaestus is depicted as the god of fire and the forge. He is lame.

[6] An ancient Taoist syndical belief that some preordained concept of fate must be permitted to unfold in due course, independent of human action. It mandated that inaction could be the only means through which to achieve the manifold deliverance of the spirit.


Last edited by richards89; 06-07-2011 at 04:58 PM..
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Old 06-07-2011, 02:24 PM
Minbard (Offline)
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Yep - too long to read online and the font too small. This is not to say I wouldn't enjoy it in a book but I think you'd have more luck (if you wanted feedback) if you post just a small part of it - or at least a bit at a time.
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Old 06-07-2011, 05:02 PM
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Originally Posted by Writing Time View Post
Header paragraph, commensurate means equal or corresponding amount
ie: the same as usual
Thanks a lot for pointing this out. I'm trying to illustrate another point there which corresponds to the cosmology that I use in many of my works...but, you're right, it does seem nonsensical here, so I've changed it for present context.

Originally Posted by Minbard View Post
Yep - too long to read online and the font too small. This is not to say I wouldn't enjoy it in a book but I think you'd have more luck (if you wanted feedback) if you post just a small part of it - or at least a bit at a time.
I've made the font rather larger now. Incidentally, I uploaded this yesterday on virtually no sleep (I'm a chronic insomniac) and didn't notice that I could actually enlarge the font within the post itself. Does this help at all?
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