The dark liquid rose in the syringe. Experience had proven that injecting more than its full volume of three cubic centimeters was impractical under these circumstances. This was unfortunate. A higher dose would have served the purpose better.
Caution for patient safety would ordinarily require certain safeguards. Injecting an air bubble into someone’s bloodstream could have…consequences…but only if the person wielding the hypodermic needle cared whether the patient lived or died. The hollow needle encountered only slight resistance before emptying itself into the softness beneath. That was its job, puncturing. The job of the syringe was to deliver its secret cargo.
Soon, it would do so again.
# # #
Ignoring her impulse to do a victory dance every time Amande called her “Mom,” Faye Longchamp-Mantooth turned to her adopted daughter and said, “Hmm?”
“I’m exhausted. How come I’m so tired when all I did was sit at a desk all day? And it’s only Monday.”
“Well, we did work six days straight last week.”
Faye stopped walking. She grabbed her hips with both hands to stabilize them while she twisted her torso hard to the left, then to the right. It was the only way she knew to stretch out the little twinge in her lower back that had lingered since she was pregnant with Michael. He was two now, so she guessed the little twinge would be with her for life.
Amande grabbed Faye’s shoulder and rubbed her fist hard over those sore back muscles. It helped.
“You’re good at that. I’m glad I keep you around.” Faye didn’t tell her that her neck hurt, too. Otherwise, she’d soon be enjoying a full body massage on a public sidewalk in downtown Rosebower, New York. “My grandmother was a secretary, so all her workdays were like the one we just spent. Every night, she walked in the house and announced, ‘I feel like I’ve been beat with a stick.’”
“That’s exactly what it feels like!” Amande gave Faye’s lower back a final punch. It felt good, but it almost sent Faye face down onto the concrete. Her new daughter was a big, beautiful six-footer and Faye was a flyweight. “It feels like I’ve been beat with a stick.”
Since Faye and Amande had a contract to do cultural resources management for a tiny historical museum that had been run by amateurs for a century, they’d spent the past week hunched over piles of unfiled papers and undocumented artifacts. There was no end in sight.
“Welcome to the world of the small-time consulting archaeologist, Sweetheart. Sometimes you get to work outside, digging up cool stuff. And sometimes you spend your time indoors with old, dusty junk. It all pays the bills.”
“Then we’ll sit inside and try not to sniff too much dust. It could be a lot worse,” said Amande, who had lived most of her life in a world where the bills didn’t always get paid.
Faye wasn’t sure there was another teenager alive who brought such a sunny disposition to a summer spent working for her mom. Her own disposition swung daily from sunny to dark. She loved having this chance to be alone with her daughter, but she missed her husband Joe and their son Michael so fiercely that it kept her awake some nights. Knowing her as he did, there had been nights when she’d picked up the phone and it had rung in her hand before she’d even poked in Joe’s number.
“Oh, my dears, I am so glad I caught you before you went back to that dingy hotel room.”
Myrna Armistead’s voice approached from behind, but slowly. She didn’t look as perky as usual but, at Myrna’s age, she was lucky to be traipsing the sidewalks at any speed. Faye had enjoyed watching this aging spinster’s awkward overtures for Amande’s friendship. Even past eighty, the mothering instinct is powerful, and Myrna wasn’t choosy. She’d barely known forty-two-year-old Faye a week, but she had already tried to mother her a few times. Faye had let her.
“Tilda and I would be honored if you’d both join us for dinner. And a spiritual reading afterward, if you like. My sister tells me the spirits are thick around the two of you. Good spirits,” she added quickly, when she saw the alarm on Amande’s face. “They are the essences of all the people who have loved you. Tilda has the sense that you both have many loved ones who have passed over, maybe more than you have left on this side of The Great Divide. Let her help them talk to you.”
Welcome to Rosebower, Faye thought, where hearing voices did not result in heavy medication and a quick trip to an in-patient unit. The little Victorian-era town was located smack-dab in the western New York cradle of Spiritualism, and it was full of people who were certain they could talk to the dead. To Tilda’s credit, she had a reputation for utter honesty. Her psychic readings involved no faked floating tables or Ouija boards or mysterious rappings. Tilda’s reputation seemed to be based on the fact that people believed her when she talked.
Why shouldn’t they? Faye liked the woman’s lined, honest face. If Tilda were to give Faye a message from her great-great-grandmother Cally Stanton, she would be inclined to believe it, despite the fact that Cally had been dead for nearly eighty years. Faye was a scientist, which made it hard for her to believe that Tilda could really talk to the dead, but she had seen some strange things in her life. She didn’t want to have dinner with Tilda and Myrna and her long-dead kin tonight, but not because she didn’t believe. Faye was just dog-tired.
Amande, too, had been dog-tired thirty seconds before, but there was now a light in her eyes that told Faye it would be hours before she saw her bed. “A spiritual reading? That’s like a séance, right?”
# # #
Because Faye had lacked the energy to say no to a teenager who smelled adventure, she was now using a fresh-baked honey-yeast roll to wipe up the puddled juices of Tilda’s succulent pot roast. Scooping up the last bites of home-grown beets and tiny green peas, Faye leaned back in her chair, unable to do anything but sigh. She was way past dog-tired now, but she was happy. Myrna, whose pudgy face was as warm and sweet as the honeyed bread, sat beside Faye, rubbing her own round belly.
“I’m sure that meal was tastier than you would have gotten at the old Vandorn house where you’re staying. Remember it, Tilda? Father’s friend lived there and we used to visit when we were little. Somebody has made it into a hotel. Imagine! So many people who touched our lives have passed over. But when you cook, Sister,” she said, “I feel like Mama has come back from the dead.”
“She has, Dear. She’s here now.”
Tilda’s barely perceptible smile lit a face so narrow that it called to mind Faye’s mother’s old-timey criticism of the looks of a too-thin woman: “That woman’s hatchet-faced.”
There was a softness to Tilda’s eyes and her short white hair that made up for her straight-edged face and whip-thin body. Faye respected her, for sure, and she thought she’d like her as much as she liked Myrna, once she got to know her better.
Tilda glanced around the room as if there were friendly spirits sitting in each of the eight extra chairs surrounding her awesomely handcarved mahogany table. If Faye hadn’t been so contented and full of beef, she might have rolled her eyes at the idea of spirits who had nothing better to do than watch them eat. This would have made her hate herself for disrespecting the cook who made such an incomparable pot roast.
“Would anybody like some candy?” Myrna handed a box of goodies around the table. “I can’t cook like Tilda, but I do like sweets. Here, take all you like.”
Faye thanked her and took a big bite of the dark gelatinous thing in her hand. It was licorice. Acrid, medicinal, noxious licorice. Somehow, the fact that the licorice had been dipped in chocolate made the flavor even worse. Could one actually spoil chocolate?
Faye locked eyes with Amande. Her daughter hated licorice, too, but the girl wouldn’t want to hurt Myrna’s feelings any more than Faye did. Faye responded to her daughter’s “Help me!” look by surreptitiously depositing the uneaten portion of her candy into a paper napkin and slipping it into her purse. There was no help for the stomach-turning mess in her mouth, so she swallowed it whole. Amande followed suit.
To distract the ladies from Amande’s waste disposal, Faye asked Tilda about the house’s antiques. It was stuffed to over- flowing with Victorian rosewood settees and hand-crocheted antimacassars, and its walls were hung with portraits of generations of Armistead ancestors.
As Tilda started to answer her, Myrna interrupted. Faye had the feeling that this happened a lot. “There are things in this house that belong in the museum where you’re working. See—” “Not while there’s an Armistead alive,” Tilda said flatly, proving that she’d learned long ago the secret to being heard in Myrna’s presence: Speak loudly and feel free to interrupt. “Some of these pieces are original to the house, and it was built in 1836.
They belong in the family.”
As twilight deepened outside the dining room’s many-paned windows, Tilda moved around quietly, lighting a collection of spherical antique oil lamps made of all colors of glass. Faye judged that they were all antique and hand-blown. Their flickering light suited the old house better than the electric bulbs in the converted gasoliers overhead would have.
“See those chairs? There have been more than family butts in them.” Myrna was whispering in Amande’s ear, but the whispers of a woman with failing ears don’t conceal much. “See that swivel-seat chair made out of cast iron? The one in front of the secretary desk?”
Amande did, and so did everybody else in the room. “Elizabeth Cady Stanton sat there, not long after she delivered the keynote address at the convention for women’s rights in Seneca Falls, not far from here. Lucretia Mott visited on another occasion. She sat there.” Myrna pointed at a slender chair with original horsehair upholstery.
Myrna had a rapt audience. Amande scampered across the room and fondled the horsehair. “Mom’s taking me to Seneca Falls while we’re here. She says we have to make a pilgrimage to the place where women put their demands in writing, just like men. After that, I’m supposed to vote every chance I get, as soon as I turn eighteen. Next year.” The last two words were delivered with an emphasis that said, “And I can’t wait.”
“I like your mom,” Tilda declared. “It’s good to exercise our rights. And to remember the people who got them for us. Shall we spend some time with their spirits? Would you still like a reading?” Faye had to admit she was curious. Also, Myrna was mutter- ing, “Where’s that candy? The little girl and her mother may want some more,” and Faye was in all-out licorice-avoidance mode. She would have endured the most cringe-inducing fake séance if doing so would have spared her a second dose of that candy. “Yes,” Faye said. “We’d be honored if you would do a reading for us, Tilda.”
Myrna led them into a room tucked under the stairs while Tilda took a private moment to prepare. Since the builders of grand old homes like this one took their stately staircases seriously, there was room for a large square area under the second floor landing, with a narrow, sloping extension beneath the steps. The underside of each stair could be seen, rising stepwise one-by-one. For an odd moment, Faye felt trapped inside the surrealist art of M.C. Escher with its impossible staircases to nowhere.
A chair, old and threadbare, was tucked under the stairs. Behind it was a dark area where an adult would have to stoop and then crawl. The square portion of the room was almost completely occupied by a round table. In its center sat a crystal ball, not large but utterly clear, glinting atop an ornate stand of tarnished goldtone metal.
Myrna busied herself with a pile of folding chairs stacked in the depths of the slant-roofed space. She could barely carry a single chair, so Faye and Amande rushed to help. Once they were in place, Myrna beckoned them to sit, chatting like someone who hadn’t met anybody new in years.
“We do this every night, just the two of us. It’s important to tend our bonds with family members who have passed over. Mother. Father. Tilda’s dear husband Edwin. Not to mention all the family we never met on this plane at all. There are so few of us Armisteads left. Just the two of us, really, and Tilda’s daughter Dara. We have some distant cousins-by-marriage in Texas—not Armisteads, but kin on Mother’s side—but we could never ever go there.”
“Why not?” Faye asked. “Airplanes fly back and forth to Texas every day.” Tilda and Myrna seemed to have financial means to make the trip, if they really wanted to go.
“I could go, but I don’t like to leave Tilda. She doesn’t travel.” Myrna leaned so close that Faye could see her reflection curving across the surface of the crystal ball. For some reason, the distorted image made Faye look up at the uncomfortably low ceiling. It seemed to be sinking even lower.
“Tilda really doesn’t travel,” Myrna went on. “She hasn’t left Rosebower since Edwin died. I think there are even parts of Rosebower that are too far from home for Tilda.”
Rosebower was a postage stamp-sized town built long before cars came along. It was physically impossible for two places in Rosebower to be far apart. Tilda must have a fearsome case of agoraphobia.
Myrna was still spilling her sister’s secrets. “The only reason we have a car is to make it easier for Tilda to get her groceries home.” “The grocery store’s only three blocks away,” Amande pointed out. “She could walk over there every morning and bring home enough food for the day. Cars are expensive. There’s no reason to pay for insurance on a car you don’t need.”
Amande knew what she was talking about. She had lived most of her childhood with no motorized transportation but a boat. She was such a reasonable girl, but the human mind is not always reasonable.
“Tilda thought it over and decided that it scared her to think about driving a car to the store once a week, but it scared her more to think about being forced to walk there every single day. Even after all these years, that car wouldn’t have two thousand miles on it, except for the fact that Tilda let her daughter Dara drive it a little when she was a teenager. I think maybe the odometer reads about five thousand now.”
“The chrome-yellow ’72 Monte Carlo out front? It’s only got five thousand original miles?” Life without a car had given Amande a motorhead’s heart.
“I bet Tilda would let you take it for a spin. She leaves the keys in it.”
Amande looked ready to forget the séance, so she could sprint outside and ogle the classic car before dark. She kept her seat, though, because Tilda had entered the room. An air of stillness entered with her, but Myrna couldn’t let the stillness settle without sneaking in a little more family lore.
“Tilda was…is…the most gifted medium of her age, just as Father was before her. She still takes the occasional client, but she must really like you girls. She doesn’t do this for everybody.” Windowless and claustrophobic, the tiny room made Faye feel disoriented even before Tilda, still silent, lit a low oil lamp and placed its open flame under the crystal ball. Faye grew curious, despite her skeptical nature. The ball, lit from below in a way she’d never seen in the movies, glowed as if from within. At the risk of ruining the spiritual tone of the evening, Faye indulged her own geekiness, leaning in to examine it. When she tried to look through the crystal, images of objects on the other side were inverted.
Faye understood the optical principle at work, but its effect was hypnotic and unfamiliar. When Tilda daubed her palms with scented oil and rubbed them over the crystal ball, warmed by flame, Faye thought, This is interesting. None of the fortune-telling gypsies on Scooby-Doo ever did that.
The fragrance of the heated oil was already rising on warm air when Tilda lit a misshapen lump of incense. She placed it on a ceramic tray that was painted with intricate geometric patterns, holding the burning incense in front of her face with both hands and drawing the aroma in through her nose. Combined with the perfumed oil, it filled the room with a fragrance that was too strong to be pleasant, yet wasn’t oppressive.
“Join hands, please,” Tilda said in a commanding voice. After three deep breaths, she said, “You were not always mother and daughter.”
Faye’s mental fraud detector gave Tilda demerits. She was certain that Myrna knew she’d adopted Amande recently, and it was obvious that Tilda immediately heard any gossipy tidbit that Myrna discovered.
“Amande’s mother sent you to her. She knew that you would care for her child.”
The curmudgeon inside Faye who bore a grudge against Justine snorted. If Amande’s mother had cared so much, why had she walked away from a toddler and never come home?
Then Faye’s internal fact checker reminded her that Justine had died only a few days before Faye got the job that took her to Amande. From a Spiritualist’s perspective, death had finally given Justine the chance to manipulate events in her daughter’s favor. She’d never had a shot when she was alive. Justine’s life had been hard from birth to grave.
Faye’s fraud detector, always fair, removed one demerit from Tilda’s side of the ledger.
Tilda closed her eyes and took more easy breaths. “The two of you are bound by more than blood. Your ancestors are happy that you found one another. Your mothers have found each other on the other side, and they share your joy.”
Well, that was an unprovable bit of feel-good psychobabble. Faye was about to issue another skeptic’s demerit when she noticed an uncountable number of orbs of light flickering in her peripheral vision. The orbs were all colors, pure and beauti- ful, without a tone of gray in any of them. The lights danced. They passed through objects and human bodies. They couldn’t possibly be real, not in a physical sense, but she couldn’t stop looking. Could anyone else see them?
Myrna and Tilda were looking only at the uplit crystal ball, but Amande’s eyes were darting from the lamplight to the room’s dark corners and back again. The girl wasn’t just confused by what she saw. She was scared.
Faye gave her daughter’s hand a squeeze. Then Tilda men- tioned their mothers again and a shadow fell over Amande’s face. “Your mothers are both here. They have not let go of the pain of living. You should know that your fathers left of their own accord. Your mothers did not send them away.”
Tilda had nailed that one, almost. Faye wasn’t sure she’d say her father had left of his own accord. More accurately, the draft board had said, “Here’s a one-way ticket to Vietnam,” but Tilda was right that her mother hadn’t sent him away.
About Amande’s father, she knew exactly nothing, because Justine had never told anyone who he was. Justine had aban- doned her daughter after a year of single motherhood and she was dead now, so there was no one to ask. There never would be. If Faye were to ever muster a grain of sympathy for Justine, it would be because she could imagine being a lonely teenaged mother with no help in sight.
The glowing lights flitted around the room, reflecting in Tilda’s glasses and throwing a luminous glow on Amande’s dark curls and her honeyed-brown skin. Faye wanted to ask Tilda whether the orbs were supposed to be the souls of dead people, but she was too relaxed to make the effort.
Even if they were ghosts, they didn’t scare her. They hovered near the four women at the table, flirting with the idea of touching them, then passing right through their bodies, always at the heart.
Faye tried to decide what color her mother’s orb would be, or her grandmother’s, or her father’s. What about Douglass? What color was his soul? He had been a rock for her, almost a father, someone she could trust to protect her when needed and to let her go when the time came. Two glowing orbs, cool green and deep blue, flew in tandem past her cheek, and she heard Douglass’ voice rumble in her ear. “He sent me, you know. Your father sent me to take care of you. And now we’re both here.”
Then she felt herself enfolded by woman-arms, more than two of them. Her mother and her grandmother were there, both of them, but they were silent, because there was nothing about their love for her that she didn’t already know. She wanted to stay there with them, but she looked at her daughter’s face and saw a tear streaking down her cheek. The tear brought Faye back to herself.
“Stop it.” She half-rose from her chair, breaking her hold on Myrna’s hand. “Stop it now. We’ve had enough.”
Stupid. How stupid could she be?
Amande didn’t have Faye’s memories of being a cherished child. There had been only one stable force in Amande’s life before Faye and Joe came along, and that was Miranda, the step-grandmother who had raised her. Hardly a year had passed since Amande learned that her runaway mother had succumbed to cancer. Days after receiving that tragic news, Miranda had been knifed to death.
It was too soon for Amande to be reminded of the grand- mother she’d lost and the birth mother she’d never known. It was simply too soon.
There were arms around Amande now, real ones, as Myrna reached out for the shaken girl, who was already cradled against Faye’s chest.
“I’m so sorry, Dear,” Myrna said. “Sometimes this happens. Sometimes, it hurts to touch the ones we miss so terribly. The pain will get better. You’ll be glad later, I promise. These experiences freshen the bonds and bring our loved ones closer. But there’s no need to rush things, now that you know what’s possible. Any time you feel like talking to your mother…or anybody, really…you come back here. Tilda can help you.”
Tilda hadn’t spoken yet. While they talked, she’d turned her drooping eyes from one face to another, as if hoping someone would tell her what had happened. If Tilda were to ask Faye that question out loud, the only answer she’d get would be, “Hell if I know.”
Faye wished for Joe. Every last gram of her was a scientist, so she would never stop looking for rational explanations for even the strangest events. Her husband, on the other hand, was sometimes content to let things be. He also possessed a comfort with the power of nature that was rooted in his Creek heritage, and his intuition was so keen that he often seemed psychic when he’d done nothing more than pay attention.
Faye’s own Creek heritage was so diluted by her African and European blood that she rarely felt a connection like Joe’s to her American roots. Joe was her spiritual touchstone.
Joe would be able to help her make sense of this experience under Tilda’s staircase. If Faye had thought Tilda possessed psychokinetic powers that could magically snatch Joe out of Florida and bring him to her, Faye would have willingly braved another session around the crystal ball. But not with Amande. Faye knew she was wishing for the impossible, but she didn’t ever want to see another tear on that vulnerable cheek.