October 27, 1976
San Antonio, Texas
Jude Lawless was fidgeting at the old man's bedside, impatient for the end to be over. The sick room was stifling. Beads of sweat squirted from the nurse's forehead as she picked up the bedpan and began lumbering toward the door. The odors and the heat made Jude feel physically sick.
At the door, the nurse paused, then announced in a loud voice: "There's no smoking in here, boy."
They both looked at the old man, who drew a long, rasping breath. But when he spoke up and gazed at his scowling, red-headed son, his voice was clear.
"She ain't much to look at," Julian said.
The nurse turned beet red, spun on her heel, and slammed the door on her way out.
Julian Lawless was a 75-year-old widower. He was also destitute, having squandered every last penny he'd managed to lay his hands on. But back when he was fifty, with a full head of thick, black, curly hair, a dimpled jaw, and a strong physique, much younger women had found him to be attractive, even irresistible.
Julian had knocked up Jude's mother when she was only twenty. Taking pity on her trouble, he had married her, then absorbed her earnings as a waitress. She died when Jude was only three years old.
If it hadn't been for a mysterious check that arrived in their mailbox every month, postmarked in San Francisco, the two would have been living on the streets of San Antonio after her death.
Jude frowned as he took a drag on his cigarette.
"What's the matter, Pa? The bitches here don't put out for free, like Ma did?"
The slowness of his father's final exit was getting on Jude's nerves and making him irritable. For the past ten years, ever since Jude was fifteen years old, Julian had been slowly dying of his vices.
"Go find your grandmother, son," the old man rasped, repeating what he'd said before the nurse came in. "She's loaded, I tell ya. Goes by a stage name, Nevada Carson. She'll be in San Francisco."
"Yeah, yeah. I hear ya."
Then Jude muttered, "Bet she's got more in her stocking toe than you ever had in your whole rotten life, you fucking derelict."
He knew the story of his old man and his old man's birth mother. To Jude's mind, it was just another example of the old man's incompetence.
In 1902, Julian had been delivered out of wedlock to an unnamed young woman in San Francisco, then given by an intermediary to a childless couple who were prosperous cattle ranchers just outside San Antonio. The Lawless couple had given Julian every advantage, but he was as ornery as a jackass and twice as horny.
At fifteen, Julian left home to follow his star to Hollywood. He had overheard Mrs. Lawless tell a friend that his birth mother was a famous actress. Instead of stardom, he found a job raising circus tents for a troop that traveled the length of California.
Julian found himself flat broke at forty. Proceeding on a hunch that arose from a feature story in the movie industry papers he followed, he hitched a ride on a turnip truck from Sacramento to San Francisco. Lauded in the article was a famous actress/screenplay writer who was retiring from the stage, one Nevada Carson, hailing originally from Saratoga Springs, New York. She had a grown daughter of some notoriety as well. Dr. Chloe Vye was an acclaimed psychologist whose books had been translated into nine languages and whose residence, according to the story, was in Alta, Wyoming.
Now Alta, Wyoming, rang a bell for Julian. The ringing in his ears clanged loudly and took him back some twenty five years when, before he left home, his mother had pressed upon him his birth certificate. She said, tearfully, he would need it one day if he were to marry. Of course Julian had no such plan, and so he promptly tossed the document, but the contents were etched in his brain nonetheless.
Julian Lawless was a lazy son-of-a-bitch, a gambler, a drinker, and what used to be called a gigolo. However, he had a special gift, an eidetic memory; Julian forgot absolutely nothing. On his birth certificate, as he clearly recalled, there was listed a Jane Doe of no known residence, as his mother and a Deceased named as his father, who had lived and died in Alta, Wyoming.
When he looked up the town, he saw it was so tiny as to be barely a dot on the map. What were the chances, he thought, of the retiring star or her daughter, who lived in Alta, knowing his natural father and mother? Given the miniscule size of the town and the nature of gossip in such a place, it seemed highly likely. It was even possible, so his hunch went, that Nevada Carson herself was his long lost mother, living under a stage name.
Julian found the actress without too much difficulty. A young female ticket manager he picked up after the theater went dark told him Miss Carson's address with very little prompting. She lived in a Victorian townhouse on Nob Hill, a block down from the Fairmount Hotel.
After taking one look at the handsome, black-haired stranger, Miss Carson invited him in. She listened to his story attentively and without once taking her blazing eyes from his face. When he was finished, she told him he was in fact her son. Then she said they were never to see each other again, that he was never to reveal their connection to anyone, and that his lifelong silence would be well rewarded. "I must insist," she said. "It's a matter of life or death."
Soon after Julian returned to San Antonio, he received by general delivery a generous check signed by a bank in San Francisco. Every month since, a check had arrived--only a check, never a letter or even her signature. But there was no doubt in his mind the money came from his famous mother, Miss Nevada Carson.
Those funds, Jude was thinking resentfully, had been gambled, drunk, and whored away while the two of them lived in unnecessary squalor.
As though he had read his son's mind, Julian abruptly began speaking of that long-ago interview with Nevada Carson that had been so painful for them both.
"She wouldn't tell me her real name and not a word of my father. She said she was afeared somethin' bad would happen if she did. Somethin' turrible, judgin' by the scared look on her face. She said there was a curse handed down from that time. She said she was marked by it, as I would be if I ever came close to her again."
Julian coughed long and violently. When he had regained his voice, he gave Jude a toothless grin and wheezed: "She tol' me one thing, though. She tol' me why she named me Julian. Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile, was her first starring role on the stage in Saratoga Springs. She named me for Julian Caesar, who was the queen's lover. That was the only question of mine she would answer."
"Maybe she just didn't want you nosin' around and askin' questions about what else you was entitled to, say, from yer old man," mused Jude.
"Goodbye, my dear," said the old man, and with a sigh, he was gone.
Jude didn't stick around for a funeral. There was no one left to mourn Julian except for himself and the far-off bitch who had given him away. There were a few things he had to take care of in San Antonio, an older woman to cadge for his rent money. Finally, in December, Jude felt sick of his life, and he decided it was high time to blow this town and head on up to San Fran.
Since his father's death, he had sometimes dreamed about grifting his mysterious grand-mama to better advantage than the old man had. The way Jude figured it, when he put his mind to it, he could get a woman of any age to do just about anything for him. All he had to do was to press a ridged mark on his chest with the tips of his fingers and look them straight in the eyes, and their knees seemed to buckle. The mark had the jagged shape of a lightning bolt.
After his arrival by bus into San Francisco on the morning of December 22, Jude was lounging on a bench on Market Street, reading the Examiner.
He had obtained a free paper by staring at a woman who was buying one from a box, then willing her to hold open the plastic door while he nonchalantly withdrew a second copy. Afterward he strolled off, whistling, while she remained standing there, transfixed by the powerful force-field emanating through the young man's amber eyes.
Now Jude was focused on a front page photo of a ravishingly attractive woman with bobbed platinum hair. She was dressed like a 1920's flapper and waving at the camera from a red, vintage car. The caption said, "A fond fairwell to a star--see our editorial page."
Like Julian, Jude never forgot anything. The difference between them was that while Julian was a reprobate, he was also possessed of human kindness. Jude had none; his heart was as cold as his eyes.
As Jude stared at the newspaper photo, his flawless memory flashed back to an old photograph he'd come across in his father's scant belongings in a dresser drawer. They were identical.
So, the rich grand-mama was dead. He'd missed the window of opportunity by two days.Of all the bad luck floating around in the universe, he thought bitterly, his was the worst.
On the editorial page, there were several glowing paragraphs about the deceased, also more press photos from her younger days on the stage. Back when she first arrived in San Francisco, her hair flowed down her back, a sizzling red-gold mane.
"We report with sadness the passing of a great and beloved local lady of stage and screen, Cassandra Vye, a.k.a the legendary Nevada Carson, who died yesterday at her home on Nob Hill, where she had lived for almost seventy years.
"A pioneer in the film industry, Miss Carson acted in dozens of early films and wrote countless screenplays during the silent movie era, both for a local studio and Hollywood.
"She will also be remembered with gratitude for her generosity and altruistic works, most of which were funded anonymously or in the name of her deceased husband, the Wyoming human rights activist and writer Nicholas Brighton. The family requests memorial donations be made directly to the Brighton Foundation in Alta, Wyoming.
"Miss Carson is survived by one daughter, Dr. Chloe Vye, of Alta."
Jude threw down the paper in disgust.
"That's a dirty lie! The doctor lady ain't her only survivor!"
He slammed his fist on the bench next to him and ground his teeth, his amber eyes flashing. Then he strode up and down the sidewalk while he continued to mumble to himself.
"What about her grandson, Jude Lawless? I'm a survivor, ain't I? Had to be one, cause I ain't had nothin' handed to me on a silver platter. But I ain't done so bad for myself, neither. The hoity-toity dames seem to think I'm worth a tumble and a month's stay, which is as long as I can stand 'em."
He addressed his next remarks to the gray sky.
"What am I, Pa, the scum of the earth? The dirt beneath the dainty ladies' feet? I'll show 'em all. I ain't done much up till now, but I'll make you this promise, old man. Someone's gonna pay for how you was throwed away, Pa, and then kicked out the door like a stray dog. I'm not one to be put off with no fairy tale about no queen of Egypt. When I catch up to your fancy-pants half-sister, I'll take my good ol' time checkin around about where all the dough has gone to. I'll just see about that before they're quit of me. "
He shook his fist into the air.
"Someone's gonna pay for what was done to you, Pa," he growled, his strong chin jutted out belligerently. "They'll pay with dough, and plenty of it. Or else, they'll pay with red blood gushing from their lily white throats."
December 18, 1977
Marlena Bellum was brushing out her blazing, red-gold hair and patiently awaiting her lover's arrival in her suite of hotel rooms (#666).
Finally, at six o'clock in the evening, she pulled shut the damask drapes in her bedroom and gave up on Harry Drake.
Harry was now more than a day late in returning from Laramie. She'd begged him to make it back to town before her mother arrived. He hadn’t shown, and just as she'd feared, when she told her mother about the impending divorce from Coddie, Faith had freaked out.
But Marlena was trying hard to make believe she didn't need Harry's moral support to withstand Faith's dire predictions that such a move would end in catastrophe, including the loss of Marlena's immortal soul.
She was mentally prepared, she told herself, for whatever curve balls her mother or anyone else might throw her way. She was a woman in love. Damn the torpedoes; full speed ahead!
Anticipating spending the night at Chloe's house, she had quickly packed a kit of essentials in a small handbag. It was her habit to travel light. Now she began the more time-consuming task of selecting a dress that would both impress Chloe's dinner guests and not offend her prudish mother. That was a magic trick unto itself! Finally she selected a little black dress with chiffon sleeves and a low, swooping back.
She was pulling a black silk stocking over one knee when the door was unbolted from the outside. The handle slowly turned, and in walked Harry Drake. Her heart stopped, then began pumping blood wildly through her veins. The blood throbbed most keenly in a small area on her breastbone, a birthmark that appeared to be a zipper over her heart. Unconsciously, she pressed on it whenever she wished for something to happen.
What she wished for now was that Harry would gather her into his arms and carry her off into the sunset.
However, Harry entered and moved across the room at his usual sauntering pace, a Hartmann suit bag slung over his left shoulder. His groin ached, and he scratched it idly.
Without looking up, she said, “Howdy, stranger.”
“Stranger than what?”
He had stopped a few feet away from her, was loosening the solid silver buckle on his belt. He was also gazing at her with a sheepish smile that seemed out of keeping with the wolfish expression on his aquiline features.
The next move was hers. She was supposed to fly to her lord and master, leap into the air like a girl squirrel, wrap her legs around his waist, and let nature take its course. Instead, she looked away and calmly slipped the garter button into its hole, then reached for the other stocking.
He looked at her rigid back and the tightly made-up bed. The most powerful man in Wyoming thought this: what gives with the cold shoulder?
“You’re in a strange mood, lass. Why is that?"
“Because you’re late, Harry. One day and three hours late, to be exact. I’d say that calls for a few words of explanation before we jump into the sack.”
“You think I’m late?”
He dropped his pants to the floor and cleared his throat. “‘I do' are frightening words, by Mungo. I don't like to hear 'em.”
“If you don’t like those, I’ll try others. Do I lie but in the suburbs of your good pleasure? That's Portia’s question to her husband, Lord Brutus, when his mind seems to be elsewhere, as yours does of late.”
Calmly lowering her head, she bent to the task of drawing on the second black silk stocking. Her heart was beating so fast, she thought she might be having a heart attack.
Meanwhile, Harry surveyed his young lover with an approving smile. His Scottish blood was always inflamed by Marlena's ability to quote Shakespeare. When he saw she wasn’t budging, he sauntered over to where she stood, grabbed her from behind, and humped her roughly.
She could smell the Old Spice on him, and she inhaled it, her eyes beginning to glaze over. Then suddenly she turned around. She beat her fists against his chest until, tiring of it, she gave herself over and relaxed into his arms, kissing his wrists submissively.
“Something came up,“ he drawled.
“I’ll bet it did.”
“Hey, no more razzing from the peanut gallery. I sent word I'd be late. And then I was held up outside of town for hours by a bloody blizzard. May St. Mungo strike me dead if I didn't wish a thousand times you were stuck out there in the snow with me, lass. We could've done it in the back seat.”
Absently he stroked the Scottish saint's medallion on his chest. He was momentarily distracted by the memory of Lorna Anderson, owner of Cowgirl Towing. She had flashed her boobs at him as she drove past his Mercedes to the other stranded vehicles. His private tow-truck was coming along just behind hers.
His penis got hard as he thought of last week's road trip to Laramie with Lorna. The cowgirl had sucked his cock while he drove one-handed and stroked her pussy. Passing truck drivers had honked their horns repeatedly in appreciation of the performance. Ah, the wonders of the sexual revolution. With a little encouragement from a mature man, young women were eager to explore their sexual urges to the point of exhibitionism and beyond.
He realized with some surprise Marlena was speaking to him again, and in an angry, clipped tone that he barely recognized as her voice.
“Death might barely excuse your keeping me waiting hour after hour, Mr. Drake. If you sent word, I didn’t get it. No matter. I don’t want anyone losing a job over it.”
“Heads will roll, my love. We'll stick them on your bedposts.”
“That would clash with the decor. Anyway, I don’t believe you sent me word. You just didn't care enough to keep your promise you'd be here.”
“Carlotta will back up my claim.”
“Of course she will."
He nuzzled her neck and nibbled on her ear. After a few minutes, he murmured, “What are you thinking, my love? You seem distracted, not your usual spunky self.”
"I'm worried I'll be late for Chloe's dinner if I don't get a move on, is all."
"You're sure that's all?"
"Well, no. If you must know, I'm thinking about a reunion event. Three days from now, on the winter solstice, I’ll be spending the night with a beautiful woman.”
He drew back from her, then cleared his throat. His scratchy voice sounded eager when he said, “Kinky! Can I come?”
“That’s what I thought you’d say. But don't bother salivating. It isn’t lesbian sex I’m after. It’s family lore. Chloe's promised a tale-around-a-campfire thing. Only our event will be minus all the belching and spitting you good ol' cowboys do.”
“Then you’ll be missing the best parts.”
Wanna bet your life, Harry? Cassandra's ghost swirled around them, and the hairs on the back of Harry's neck lifted up.
"What? Who said that?"
Marlena stared at him. "What's the matter? I didn't say anything."
He scratched his head, then his balls. His hardon was receding; he wished Marlena would shut up and take her clothes off.
“Hmm, thought you did. As for spending the night with Chloe, lass, there’s nothing less worthwhile than hanging out with a psychiatrist. You lay on a couch and entertain her with bullshit. She sits in a chair and gives you lies about what your bullshit means. Nobody tells the truth, and no one gets laid. What’s in it for you?”
“Plenty. I’ll be hearing a creepy story from the family history vault. Not that there won't be a lie or two told, I suppose. Plato considered all stories to be complete falsehoods.”
“Plato’s coming too? What a bloody bore.”
“Be serious for one minute, will you, Harry? This stuff is important to me.”
He had stood up and was unbuttoning his shirt, hoping the activity would encourage her to disrobe as well. “Why?”
“I’ve been waiting for twenty years to hear Cassandra's secret story."
“Oh, so that's what you're in for.” He whistled. “That's likely to be a strange journey.”
“Why, that’s just what Chloe said, a strange journey. What makes you say so?”
He sat down beside her, dropped his shirt to the ground, and then pulled off his undershirt. The hairs on his chest were mostly gray; when they began their affair five years before, she reflected, his chest hairs were jet-black. She loved the feeling of the fine curly hairs brushing against her hand. She longed to be in bed with him, but she was consumed with curiosity about what he would say next.
“Oh, Chloe and I go way back," he said vaguely. "We'd hang out when she came here during the summers to visit Marcus Vye." He was thinking it wouldn't do to admit to Marlena they had almost eloped!
He continued on: "But never once did Chloe talk about her mother, even whether she was alive or dead. It was all a big mystery. Chloe was clear on only one point. Those who carry Drake or Zanelli blood in their veins, never the twain shall meet, or else all hell breaks loose. Seems there was a curse passed down from her mother's time. Not that Chloe would ever fall for such nonsense. She's kept her powder dry and stuck to the high ground. No one dares question her right to be here whenever she feels like it.”
So, what was the hidden message? Did Harry wish she were more like her cousin Chloe? Did he feel she had no right to be dawdling in her home town?
But Harry only waved his hand, as if to dismiss all further discussion. “Maybe Chloe’s gone soft in her old age. Or she's decided to tell you the story of the curse as a warning against me.”
He looked at her suspiciously. “Say, you haven’t been telling stories out of school, have you, lass?”
“Don’t flatter yourself, Harry."
So, there was a family curse!
Don't ever doubt it, kid. And if you don't take steps to keep it at bay, it will ruin your life and kill every man who comes near you.
While Harry was speaking, Marlena's infallible memory had unrolled every detail of a weird encounter she'd had yesterday in the ladies' room of the hotel. The nuttiest of the local religious fanatics had screamed curses and all but accosted her, accusing her of being Satan's a force for evil in the community. She'd been ordered to leave at once--"or else two deaths on your head," Letty had threatened, "before the bonfires are extinguished."
Now Marlena rapped her knuckles on her head and stood up, edging away. “Knock on wood, Harry. I hope I make it through the week. Things are even kookier than I bargained for.”
“Nothing kooky about me. I’m just horny."
"Don’t you want to hear about how Sunday brunch with mother went today?”
Marlena spoke in a voice that sounded wistfully girlish. The unaccustomed, quavering note jarred his nerves, which were already frayed with pent-up lust.
He frowned, then said: “Oh yes. Mrs. Bellum came in last week on a bus from Chicago. How did it go, lass?”
“Faith came in last evening on the train from Cleveland. We had brunch today, just the two of us." She took a deep breath, then spoke, falteringly: "I told her about my separation from Coddie...and uh...and uh....a little about us.”
"I wish you hadn't done that. Is she staying with us?”
“No. She's at Ho Jo’s.”
“She must like a whiff of fried clam with her milkshake."
You're an arrogant prick, observed Cassandra from her window perch.
"Why? Because I don't like the idea of airing our dirty laundry? We can discuss your mom later, lass. There are more pressing items on the agenda.”
Harry gestured at his erect cock.
"Harry, what are you talking about? Jeez. All I said was that she's staying at Ho Jo's."
He scratched his head. "Must be something's wrong with the acoustics in here. Check it out with the GM, will you, Marlena? I could swear I heard someone call me a prick."
"Sure thing. I'll get right on it."
So, Harry thought, is the minx going to give me a hard time all night, or am I getting laid? Is she worth all the trouble? She had come closer, but when he reached out and pulled her toward him and began to caress her, she made no responsive movement. When at last she spoke it was woodenly, with downcast eyes. She didn't want him to see how much she desired him inside her.
“I promised Chloe that mother and I would be at Mill’s Creek no later than seven, before the guests arrive. It's only right we should help out Annie, the housekeeper. She’s getting old.”
"I’m feeling older by the second," he complained. Then he tilted her chin up and looked her in the eye; that ploy always served to connect them.
The current buzzed between them.
“Couldn’t you be a tad late, my love? I have an appetite. Do you?"
Did she ever! It had been four weeks, two days, and thirty minutes since they'd made love. Her panties were getting hot and wet. But in an attempt to make headway in the power struggle between them, she shrugged to create a show of indifference.
Harry was craftily watching for a tell-tale quiver of her upper lip. There it was! His smile was confident as he grabbed her hand and placed it on his erect member, which was making a tepee of his boxer shorts.
Her eyes flashed. Weighing the interests of her family against Harry's demands was something she had never before had to do. Taking a deep breath, she willed him to back off, so she wouldn't have to make a choice.
Sensing something new in the vibes between them, Harry drew back in silence.
“It’s been ages since I’ve spent time with Chloe," Marlena calmly explained. "I can't let her down when she has guests expecting to meet me at the front door.”
She looked down, so he wouldn't see in her eyes how panicky she was about how he might react.
However, there was no sign of emotion on the other side. Harry simply shrugged, stood up, and strolled across the room, then opened his briefcase.
Marlena found she was sick to her stomach with misery at having failed, for the first time in their five-year relationship, to respond immediately to any expressed desire of her lover. She was trembling, because there was more coming. She had to have it out with him, she thought desperately; she couldn't go on this way.
As he continued to be silent, finally she burst out with accusing words, all but shouting at him: “You never show up when you say you will! I don’t even know if we’re having a Christmas together!”
Harry regarded her with cold surprise. The pupils of his light brown eyes were constricted to pinpoints.
Despite her heated condition, Marlena shivered.
“Well, since you put it like that, lass, I’ll be glad to speak in clear sentences. We're not having Christmas together. I’m spending it at Drake's Roost. And after the welcome I’ve received here tonight, Marlena, I may not be darkening your door again until Easter.”
She turned away miserably. Her face was drained of its color, and her throat was so convulsed, she couldn't say a word. She swallowed hard, only managing to speak in a jittery tone that sounded alien to her own ears.
“Thank you for the clarity, but I don't believe I'll have any desire to see you again either. I won’t give myself to you in the current circumstances. I swear by all that's holy I won't.”
“Holy?”he scoffed.“Since when in hell did anything holy mean more than a fart in a windstorm to you? Threaten away, my pet. But you and I both know that a nature like yours doesn’t go against instinct, and your instincts all belong to me. You're cursed with the mark of Eve and destined to fall, my love. And when you do, I, like Adam, am destined to be eternally at your cervix.”
Still naked, he doffed an imaginary hat and bowed with comic exaggeration.
The posturing and the lofty, amused tone had finally kindled her anger to the boiling point. “So this is the consideration I get for years of kissing your ass,” she stormed.“Well, let me tell you, Harold Augustus Drake, I have done without you before and I can do so again. You don’t own me.”
“My dear, the point is that I do. You won’t want to do without me because you can't. You’re stuck on me. Addicted. Can't get enough of my devilish charms.”
He had stuck out his strong chin and grinned. But his exultant expression changed when he saw there were tears standing in her eyes. He strolled closer, surveyed her face curiously, and then observed, "I've never seen you cry before. That's the thing I like best about you, your stiff upper lip. Well, there are other parts I like, too."
Something between a sob and a giggle escaped through her compressed lips. He pinched the exposed flesh on her buttocks cheek and then smacked it. The sting was pleasurable, but it also awoke her to the smug look of confidence on his face. The realization he was toying with her hardened her resolve, at least for the moment.
She drew herself up proudly and stood away from him.
He dropped his arms and stood for awhile, staring at her moodily but dwelling on his own frustration. At last he said, “Should we resume this debate later night?”
Her blazing, blue-green eyes narrowed.
“Only,” she said slowly, “if you admit you love me best. Say you love me, not Lila. Say it!”
Wisely, he had kept his gaze on the floor. Now he lifted his eyes to face the force field; the current of her passionate will blazed forth. His eyes, cold and impenetrable, slid away.
“I don’t think that would be a good policy, Marlena. The businessman in me says that gives you too much leverage.”
“Admit it!” she cried.
“You know it already.”
Turning his back on her, he went to his open briefcase. While she stood there trembling, he pulled out a red velvet case and then calmly brought it to her.
“Let’s not argue, darling. Here’s a small peace offering to hold us over until after Christmas.”
She shook her head vehemently. But he took a pearl-and-aquamarine bracelet from the Cartier case and clasped it around her slim wrist. While he was fastening it, she could have sworn she heard a strange woman's voice in her ear. Even odder were the words she thought she heard:
First rule of thumb, kiddo: always take the jewelry.
"The stones are the same color as your eyes. That's why I was attracted to them. Why are you behaving in this angry way? You know I can't live without you."
She couldn't resist the show of warmth. She hungrily melted into his welcoming embrace.
Pulling her onto the bed, he caressed the tops of her thighs over her silk stockings until she became maddened by his touch. He stopped, which forced her to beg for more.
"What do you want? Tell me, lass."
"Kiss me a little down there, please."
Then he crouched on the bed and, looking directly into her eyes, placed his lips on her labia, flicking the protruding muscle with his tongue until it grew hot and hard. Then he lowered his shoulders and his head until the curly, black hair brushed her vagina. This always tickled her and made her giggle. The giggling stopped as he lapped at her until she came the first time.
Afterward, as he rolled from the bed, he said, "Keep that bauble out of sight downstairs, will you, lass? I don't want to hear about it from Lila."
December 21, 1977
The spectacle of purple-streaked clouds and violet shadows cast by Alta Mountain was centered on a blood-red, plummeting fireball.
"Just look at that sunset. What could be more beautiful?"
The colors of passion are, daughter. Now, if you were inclined to flush all over, as I did when Curly's purple-headed spear penetrated the shell-shaped curve of my roseate labia, and to catch on fire when the sparks of our flesh-to-flesh friction began to fly, then you wouldn't be so content to live like a nun. I'll never understand, Chloe, why you deprive yourself of the incredible pleasures of sex.
Dr. Chloe Vye, single and childless at 59, was watching the daylight dwindle from a balcony at her stone home overlooking Mill's Creek pond. Sprawled beside her, in a full-length raccoon coat thrown open at the throat to receive the last rays of the departing sun, was Chloe's thirty-year-old cousin Marlena Bellum, whom she'd always regarded as a surrogate daughter.
Family resemblance was apparent in the curve of the lips, the exotic features, and the stature of the two women. But Chloe's eyes were amber and she wore her hair in a platinum bob, while Marlena's coppery hair was finely spun, glimmering masses that curled down her back, and her wide-set, hypnotic eyes were the brilliant shade of the Mediterranean Sea.
Chloe couldn't see her mother’s ghost, but she could hear her sometimes, when the wind blew just right.
Last year on the solstice and at the age of 96, Cassandra Vye had died in her Nob Hill home in San Francisco while Chloe grasped her hand and willed her mother to let go her tenacious hold on a long, wild ride of a life.
The pale specter haunting the three cousins' holiday reunion wore a luminous, flowing white gown. She had a youthful evanescence and masses of flaming, red-gold hair. In all but the transparency of her appearance, she was the same young woman she had been at twenty years. Therefore, Cassandra was considerably put out that her living descendants didn't have the power to see her in all her recovered glory, only to hear her from time to time.
Extra-sensory perception isn't all it's cracked up to be. But I'm here all right, carried in on the wind sweeping off the Black Hills. And why shouldn't I be? The young copper-head has got herself into a mess that threatens us all. Pregnant by her married lover, who is the descendant of Curly Drake! Hexed by a descendant of Goody Brown! What could be worse?
She's a walking nightmare. Also, I must admit, the spitting image of me, except for the eye color. That must come from the young man her mother couldn't hang onto. Instead, Faith roped in Austin Bellum, saddled him with her love child, and even got away with it, until now. What a chump Faith's husband was, not to mention a pedophile! I wonder what Chloe and Faith ever saw in Austin Bellum? He must have been hung like a horse.
And now, my beloved daughter feels duty-bound to divulge my deepest, darkest secrets to Faith's daughter, our impossibly reckless, social-climbing cousin. She doesn't even know she's a bastard! I wonder whether our clan is losing its perspicacity along with its common sense?
Marlena sighed. She had much on her mind. She felt lost and bewildered, not at all the confident self she portrayed in public or to Harry. She also felt horny--did normal pregnant women always feel horny, as she did?
Who would have thought so much could occur in a few short days?
The destruction she'd seen at B. L. Zebub's this afternoon tarnished all she'd worked for since 1970. The massive oak bar, the icon of her and Harry's success, was now broadcasting a horrifying message in blood-red letters and threatening Harry with two deaths if he didn't cut his ties with "Satan's whore, Marlena Bellum." The central mirrored panel had been warped by an unknown mechanism, the mirror buckling so that her image appeared grotesquely distorted. At its midpoint was a large gaping crater, a hole the size of a manhole cover, created by a javelin hurled into it, one fashioned with red Indian feathers. The hardwood floor was littered in smashed glass; worse, it was swarming with thousands of wriggling worms and crawling snakes.
Harry had ordered her off the property as though she were a holiday temp with the measles! Obviously he suspected her of masterminding the surreal vandalism. She needed to convince him she had had nothing to do with it.
She also needed to tell him she was carrying his child--the sooner, the better.
Yet, on other hand, like her period, the family reunion was long overdue. She'd waited twenty years for the story Chloe was prepared to tell her tonight. Every fiber of her being quivered with anticipation for this long-awaited event.
In the past seven years, there'd been virtually no contact between the two women. Marlena and Chloe, once intimates despite their thirty-year age difference, hadn't watched a Western sunset together since the late 60's. That was back when Marlena was finishing her graduate degree in architectural school, and Chloe was rehabbing her great-grandfather's stone home at Mill's Creek, with Marlena's assistance.
Chloe was book-touring in Europe when Marlena returned to Alta in 1970. She was there to manage a grand hotel opening for Drake Enterprises on behalf of her San Francisco employer, Pioneer Architectural Designs (PAD).
In returning to her native town, Marlena had been shocked and saddened to find the core decaying, the old Victorians torn down or tottering on their foundations. Her grandparents' Victorian residence, which she called "the pink house," appeared a slovenly victim of absentee ownership and itinerant renters.
Her childhood peers had also vanished, the war in Southeast Asia having devoured every draft-age native son who wasn't a draft dodger or enrolled in the University of Wyoming or Casper College. Only a few of her former classmates remained in this remote, windy outpost of the American West.
One such native buck, who'd been too young to volunteer for Vietnam, was now walking under the balcony.
Every young woman in Alta had a crush on Apollo Nelson, the tall, blue-eyed, blond muscle man who was Chloe's part-time ranch-hand. But, ever since Marlena's arrival a few days before, Apollo had had eyes for no one but Dr. Vye's red-headed cousin. He was whistling, trying hard not to let it appear he was staring up at the balcony for a glimpse of her slim ankles.
Marlena had been unusually quiet since she left her suite at the Alta Hotel today at Chloe's invitation and moved into the bedroom at Mill's Creek that had once belonged to Chloe's mother, Cassandra Vye, the subject of the solstice story.
To toast the solstice, she and Chloe had brought out onto the balcony a chilled bottle of Moet Chandon Reserve and a pair of fluted champagne glasses.
As she took the glass of champagne handed her, Marlena was startled to hear Chloe murmur in a nostalgic tone: "There’s a pier in the Florida Keys where they toast the sunset every night.”
After a short pause, Marlena murmured half-heartedly: "I'll raise a glass to us three. Long may our line survive and thrive."
As Chloe raised her glass, both were thinking of the third party to their reunion, grey-haired, flinty-eyed Faith Bellum at the downtown Ho Jo's. Chloe was also thinking of the fourth--Cassandra's ghost, who had just taken a seat on the window ledge.
"I suppose Mama is saying her rosary non-stop, praying for my immortal soul," said Marlena. "According to her, I was damned to hell the minute I signed those divorce papers."
She was thinking: imagine the guilt trip she'll lay on me if Faith finds out I'm pregnant!
Chloe was thinking about how, when she had pressed Faith to join them at Mill's Creek, Faith had stubbornly insisted on maintaining her distance, saying she was waiting for Marlena to personally invite her.
Chloe gathered there had been little contact between Faith and Marlena since Austin Bellum passed away in 1974, and that the mother-daughter reunion at the hotel on Sunday had been a stormy, bumpy ride.
Noticing Marlena's shudder, Chloe wondered if she was thinking of Faith or of Cassandra, the two absent women who were both key players in this family reunion.
But Marlena was not thinking of either one. She was continuously revolving in her mind the shocking scene at the hotel for which her angry lover had unfairly blamed her. He assumed she was flexing her power, that it was all part of a scheme to get his attention.
"I don't pretend to know what's on your mind, Marlena, but my mind is on the money. It's holiday week. I can't close up shop because of whatever spook is supposedly out to get you."
Sometimes, she thought, it sucked to be a siren.
There was no doubt in her mind the destruction at B. L. Zebub's was the work of the local religious fanatics. They were led by the witch-hunter who had hexed her, Mrs. Letty Brown-Hawker.
Ha! No way. That she-man doesn't have enough power to pull off a caper like that. With a little help from Julian Lawless, I staged the spectacle myself. I didn't do it to be mean, only to get our kid freed up from that damned hotel. She belongs here at Mill's Creek, out of harm's way. Not that I'll get any thanks for my trouble.
The baggage can't seem to get her mind wrapped around the danger she’s in. We must never forget the faction of the natives, even to this day and age, who believe fornicators are in league with the devil and must be driven out of Alta at all costs.
There are others who fear Marlena. They believe that because she looks so much like me, anyone in pants who gets close to her may go up in smoke, taking the town to hell with him.
Unbelievably, despite getting knocked up outside her marriage and despite the hexing she got from crazy Letty, the kid thinks she's invincible, that she's in the catbird seat. Her judgment is clouded by her mogul boyfriend. He doesn't have any special powers, but his ability to pull the wool over her eyes is classic. What she sees when she looks at him is a rosy future, love and sex in a castle. And she assumes the times are too modern for a witch-hunt. Ha!
She's delusional, if you ask me, target practice for the denizens of disaster.
Seeing the tears brimming in Marlena's lashes, Chloe bit her lip, thinking how life had been an uphill battle for her cousin, a shy, lonely, paranormally gifted child who had been tormented by the village children.
Long-legged and gawky, with Clarabelle hair, freckles, protuberant eyes, and a freakish ability to remember everything, little Lena was never popular with her classmates at Theodore Roosevelt Elementary. Only one, Ronnie Huddleston (whom Austin had called Typhoid Ronnie because he consecutively infected Marlena with all the childhood diseases known to man) had risen to her defense and befriended her. Serendipitously, as of yesterday, Dr. Ron was once again front and center in Marlena's life. This time he was Marlena's physician.
Was Dr. Ron interested in being more than Marlena's physician? Chloe wouldn't be surprised. The ugly duckling had blossomed into a swan. Tall, willowy, and stunning, Marlena was a sexual goddess. She was also an up-and-coming San Francisco architect and the force behind the most successful tourism venture Wyoming had ever known.
With Marlena as his project architect, Harry Drake had opened the Alta Hotel on the mountain to great acclaim in 1972; since then, the operation had made a bundle for Drake Enterprises. B. L. Zebub's, its signature bar, was a wildly successful cowboy version of Plato's Retreat in New York routinely receiving rave reviews. Hollywood stars and senators made detours in their road-trips for a pass through the secret door into the posh, decadent enclave that was Marlena's brain child.
Marlena had the mettle of Seattle Slew and the crowns to prove it. But her steady upward climb had suddenly stalled at a point of no return, and Chloe was afraid her cousin was on the brink of trashing her hard-won success. If word got out simultaneously about her separation from her husband and her pregnancy, her reputation would be sacrificed. Already she was the target of fear and suspicion. Instinctively, the natives shunned her because of her similarity to Cassandra, and more than a few believed she was tainted in some unspeakable way.
Sometimes, Chloe thought, it sucked to be a siren.
The fact that the very same thought had formed in Marlena's mind first, then had passed into her own, wouldn't have surprised Chloe in the least. In Marlena's childhood, when they were spending a lot of time together, they would practice ESP along with reading lessons and have conversations without opening their mouths.
Tonight Chloe’s goal was no less than to use her mother's secret story to turn the tide in the deadly affair, prompting Marlena to give up Harry Drake, before it was too late.
What's it to you, Chloe? Why do you care so much what happens to this baggage?
It wasn't only that Harry Drake was married and wasn't likely to ditch his blueblood wife for Marlena. Indeed, both Harry and Marlena were married to others, though Marlena was legally separated from Codwell Dimmer, her husband of seven years.
It was also a fact, one which everyone knew, that Harry's wife was both barren and uninterested. From a month into their marriage, Lila Coffin Drake had thumbed her tipped nose at Harry from every watering hole on the European continent.
But, historically speaking, Marlena and Harry together were as dangerous a pair as a stick of dynamite and a blow torch. And as the natives knew, their relationship was perpetuating an explosive storyline from the distant past.
"Another toast," Marlena interjected, flashing a smile that was a bright contrast with her sad expression.
"May your mother forever reign supreme as Alta's most mysterious, misunderstood femme fatale--that is, second only to myself. Here's to Cassandra's one-woman show!" Her blue-green eyes sparkled defiantly, as if to dare the psychiatrist to utter a negative opinion of Marlena's situation.
Ha! I can see you'll need my help, daughter. I'll take my bows later.
The cousins drank from the crystal flutes, looking at each other appraisingly. Chloe looked dotingly upon Marlena, but the young woman's gaze showed the exasperation of a willful spirit which has been thwarted for too long.
"Do you realize, Chloe, I've been waiting twenty years to hear Cassandra's story? So, here's one last toast, to the end of a long battle of wills. I win! Hip, hip, hooray!"
As they silently drank their champagne, each cousin continued with her own thoughts about where the reunion was headed.
Putting on the heavy robes of the epic storyteller would require all her wits and energy, Chloe thought, as well as the help of Cassandra and of Thomas Hardy to fill in the blanks.
She coughed softly to signal her intrusion into the lull.
“Of course, you're welcome to view our campfire tonight as a personal victory, dear. However, when long-held secrets are passed to the next generation, along with the free entertainment comes an expectation."
Marlena looked at her suspiciously. "Such as?"
"For starters, you must promise to discontinue exercising your special powers on unsuspecting bartenders."
Blushing, Marlena broke out into child-like giggles.
Good move. You've got her attention now, daughter.
Marlena had used her powers to play a little trick yesterday evening for the amusement of her former classmate, Dr. Ron Huddleston. With a whirl of her coppery hair and a direct stare into his eyes, Marlena had made Julio, the new bartender, stop dead in his tracks and wait on them. Mesmerized, he'd been compelled to take her order, even though he knew his instructions were to take care of the staff last.
"Did Dr. Ron tell you about my little power play at B. L. Zebub's?" Marlena asked.
"It wasn't very nice of my old school chum to tell. What else did Typhoid Ronnie say about me?"
Chloe clammed up, confirming Marlena's suspicion that somehow Chloe knew everything,
Indeed, Dr. Ron had confided the news of her pregnancy to Chloe, the result of a malfunctioning I.U.S., and had enlisted her as a professional co-conspirator in keeping Marlena's spirits up.
Suddenly Marlena felt a strong twinge of pain, accompanied by the queasiness that came naturally with her condition.
The pain proceeded from a depressing realization, that once upon a time she could use her mesmeric tricks on Harry, and he would instantly come to her if she willed it hard enough. But, no more. Despite her willing him to seek her out, despite a note left in his hotel suite begging him to call her, there had been radio silence since Sunday.
Marlena kept asking herself: Why hasn't he called? Did my note go astray? Could he be punishing me for being a pain in the ass Sunday night? What was she supposed to do? Where might she go to get her powers tuned up?
She desperately needed to tell Harry about the plight she was in and get his help in arriving at the decision that she must make. Ever since the start of this damned family reunion, her powers seemed to have deserted her. Meanwhile, her enemies were multiplying by the hour.
In Chloe's view, the only special power they possessed was a preternatural ability to recall and repeat, word-for-word and image-for-image, what they had read, seen, or heard even once. Granted, perfect recall was an unusual ability, as Chloe had explained, but she seriously doubted it contained any supernatural elements. Rather, she believed it was a mental talent that some were born with and fewer practiced.
The three kinswomen had practiced and applied their eidetic memory in different ways.
Dr. Vye primarily used her gift for writing books, delivering lectures, and keeping straight all the conflicting stories her patients told her. She could reconstruct a plotline in a 600-page novel, scene by scene.
Faith--when she was still Faith Zanelli--was a cub reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer in the late 1930's. She didn't need to write anything down, as she could remember word for word what her sources said. She could also remember the numbers of the license plates she'd seen that day. Indeed, her most admired skill was with numbers.
In 1942, when Faith enlisted in the Women's Marine Corps for the war's duration, her ability to detect slight abnormalities in Morse code that might be enemy infiltration made her a much valued service-woman. Her head for numbers also made her invaluable in her current job of paymaster for the Electromet in Cleveland.
As a precocious toddler, Marlena Bellum could sound off in her baby voice the names of all the songs that her father sang or whistled to her; they numbered in the hundreds, as Austin was a musical man who doted on his only child. She had gone on to be a brilliant student, getting a full scholarship to Cleveland State and finishing Phi Beta Kappa. Then she was awarded the Frank Lloyd Wright graduate fellowship at the Drachmann School of Architecture at the University of Arizona. Harry Drake had been amazed by her ability to take in a blueprint or an architectural nuance in a building at one glance and then re-create it with exactitude.
"We steal only from the best," he chuckled, when she showed him how the leather walls in their "poolhall saloon" might be designed.
She had sketched for him an exact replica of an English lord's private billiard room they had toured together in Oxford.
TO BE CONTINUED....