1956: An Interlude II
Dark. Darker than the quiet street to which he’d moved his family four months ago. Silver Strand: an up-and-coming little shore town, if you believed the flattery-flinging real-estate agent who had a nasty habit of eyeing Rebecca’s legs in her slim skirt, but the street (Avalon Avenue, it was called, and oh how Rebecca, ever a fan of the Arthurian legends, had swooned over that name) showed no sign of “coming up.” The house sat alone, capping the end of the road and a hundred yards from the nearest street light or neighbor. But his wife loved it, as Evan knew she would, and even he, a city boy by birth and breed, had come to appreciate the quiet susurrations of the Atlantic as it beat peacefully and implacably against the shore less than a quarter-mile to the east. More important than his or Rebecca’s feelings, of course, were the girls. If Alessandra and Matilda (Ally and Tilly to their parents and friends) both had hated the house, had hated the consolidated middle school, had shown even the slightest aversion to the salty air or sandy shoals, Evan would have packed the old Chevy—not the Mainline he was currently driving to his current job—and driven back home to New Brunswick. But the girls loved the house, despite its smaller size; they loved the beach; they loved their school. And so Evan had to be content.
And he was. Sure. The isolation here, at the end of a mystically named street, made it much easier to keep his family out of his business. Made the long nights away from home easier to explain away, because, so far as Rebecca and the girls knew, he was still peddling insurance door-to-door in his Hudson/Bergen territories. So, yes, he was content, but, at the same time, the quiet and the separateness unnerved him, opened up space in his mind, a quiet space where his thoughts were allowed to roam, and roaming thoughts rarely dealt in anything but mischief, or so his father had often said.
“Focus on this,” he muttered in the heat of the Mainline’s cab and gripped the steering wheel tight. He’d come to Leeds Road and would have to park soon and walk the rest of the way. The prospect did little for his nerves—his mind kept circling back to that envelope Tony Tredio had handed him, the stink of the Sandy Lanes Bowling Alley dumpsters ripe in his nostrils, and the grisly orders that had been inside—but a nighttime stroll might ease his mind, if nothing else.
The night still held the heat of the day, reluctant to give it up. Evan pulled onto the shoulder, went to the trunk, removed the jack, and proceeded to lift the front end of the car. If anything went wrong he could jump into the driver’s seat and speed off, allowing the rear tires to jump the car off the jack.
The woods pressed intently to either side of the road, leaning in a way that made them look like gossipers. Somewhere a nightbird shrieked, whether in fear or triumph Evan did not know. The revolver hung heavy against his ribs in its shoulder holster, and though Evan doubted he would need it tonight, the surety of its weight beneath his coat comforted him. The green smell of pine and birch flitted in the air, light as dust motes; his shoes crunched in broken macadam. Something large trundled through the dense foliage on his right, but Evan did not flinch. He was close now, and during these moments his attention, his drive, honed to a point so sharp it could draw blood—and it invariably did.
Light flickered through a stand of box elders. A cottage. But, no, that word was a little too kind, Evan thought, as he drew closer. It was a shack. An oblong hut resting three feet from the ground on several thick and knobby tree stumps and ensconced among heavy pillows of bracken and bramble. A single window gazed out from the shack’s front, and Evan thought he could see a figure moving there, rocking docilely to and fro. The light lent that shape a tenebrous quality he didn’t like. He moved forward, ascending the stairs, which were little more than uneven two-by-fours nailed into old tree stumps, and raised a fist to knock on the door.
Get her to invite you in. Simple as that. A little road trouble. Nothing serious. Did she have a phone and could he use it? No phone? Well, that’s all right. Could he at least trouble her for a glass of water before being on his way?
He smiled. The coldness had descended on him fully, bringing focus, killing remorse. He was about to knock when he noticed the sound. Singing. Some sweet voice singing in a language that sounded like an older English.
In th’olde dayes of the king Arthur,
Of which the Britons speken greet honour,
All was this land fulfild of fairye…
The words sounded like a strange hybrid of English and German, and Evan, who had done his mother proud and matriculated out of high school, thought he recognized the words of Chaucer. He paused, listening harder, but the voice had stopped. Just when he was certain the singing would not go on, it continued, but now the sweet cadence had turned darkly, seeming somehow threatening.
Aye, in sooth, tis daungerous
to comest hoom with yvel in thine herte,
thou verray knave.
To what darkness hast thou beyn a part?
A pause. Evan armed sweat from his head. Focus, he commanded himself. He knocked. The sound of footsteps on the other side of the door. Evan knew what to expect: a half-blind old crone with stringy, gray hair, her humped back painfully pronounced as she teetered over a crooked cane; she would reek of cabbage and onions and cat.
The woman that answered the door stood erect. Her face was young, creased only near the eyes where the corners had drawn up to accommodate her smile. And that smile was broad, untroubled, almost coquettish. She wore a red blouse and a pleated skirt that ended just below her knees. She was barefoot, and one shapely ankle (what Evan’s father appreciatively called “dancer’s ankles”) glittered with a string of silvery charms shaped like the moon in various phases. “Good evening, sir,” the woman said. Her lips were pink and her eyes were the honeyed shade of polished citrine. Evan felt his own eyes drop, studying the delicate curves of her strong calves, and forced them up. Were her toes covered in dirt? He didn’t dare look down again to check.
“Good evening, miss,” he said, hating the way his voice wanted to quiver.
“Verina Magus,” she said and curtsied, never taking her eyes from his. Those odd, honey eyes that looked almost yellow from where he stood on the dark stoop. But, no, they weren’t both yellow, at least not the same yellow, and his mind returned to the envelope Tony had delivered, the envelope containing that gruesome “special request.”
Evan removed his hat. “Well, ma’am, I was wondering if you could help me out. You see, my car caught a flat a few miles up this road.” He gestured the way he’d come, doing his best to mimic the vacant, fearful expression of the tourist who has somehow lost his way and must rely on the kindness of strangers. Let her think I’m harmless, vulnerable. He returned his gaze, feeling slightly annoyed (and a little aroused) by the fond way she seemed to be studying him. “And I was wondering if I could use your phone to call in a tow.”
Verina shrugged her shoulders pertly—an oddly girlish gesture—and said, “No phone, I’m afraid. But I can point you in the direction of one, if you like.”
“That’d be fine, ma’am.”
She stood on tiptoe, pointing back the way he’d come. Part of her blouse billowed away from her, and Evan found his eyes drawn inexorably to the supple swell of soft flesh beneath. “About five miles that way you’ll come across The Welkin farm—likely you passed it on your way. Fred and Anna Welkin live there, and they had a phone installed just last year.” She returned her odd eyes to him and Evan made sure that his were looking where they should be. “It was all Anna could talk about for six months whenever I went to buy my eggs.”
He arched his brows. “Five miles you say?” And rubbed his chin, as if contemplative. “All right. I guess that’ll have to do.”
Verina touched his arm. The heat of her pushed through the thin fabric of his jacket. “What’s your name?” she asked.
“Bill Sanders,” he said.
Verina smiled, one eyebrow cocked askew. “Well, Bill, why don’t you come in for a few minutes? Rest up and have a drink before I send you on your way.”
Evan tried to look reluctant and mostly succeeded. There was something fascinating about this woman. Her hair, he thought. It hung in free tumbles that were not messy, nor were they tended—thick chocolate sheaves that reached nearly to the small of her back. His wife kept her hair shoulder-length and usually in a bouffant; when he tried to recall an image of Rebecca now he could not do so without picturing her with her hair screwed up into big, pink curlers.
“Sure,” he said finally. “I guess I can stop in for a bit.”
Verina Magus showed him in.
The shack was piled with odd knickknacks—books, canning jars, potted flowers, picture frames housing mimeographed poems, earthenware pitchers and bowls and vases—but all adorned the cramped space with a kind of fastidious order. The front hall gave onto a living room containing a long oak cabinet pressed to the far wall and a single chair; the floor was bare, impeccably swept. Evan took a deep breath, noticing a sweet, earthy smell.
“What can I get you, Bill?” Verina asked, closing the door and moving in front of him.
“Water will do fine,” he said, removing his hat quickly and looking embarrassed, like a boy that has forgotten his manners.
“Water?” Verina echoed, seeming nonplussed, but that amused smirk never fell from her smooth and pretty face.
She can’t be older than twenty, Evan thought. What’s a young girl like this doing living alone on this dark, no-where road?
He gave himself a mental shake, dismissing the question, knowing the danger that dangled behind such inquiries—he had a job to do, and the gravest mistake now would be to think of Ms. Verina Magus as anything but a job.
“Yes, miss,” he said. “Just water. Is it ‘miss’?” Now why had he asked that? To know if there was a man waiting in the back, his thoughts assured him.
Verina’s cheeks reddened, though Evan had an idea that a girl like her had never felt bashful in her life, and she said, “Aye, I’m a ‘miss,’ if you must know. I’ll get your water. Sit in the parlor if you like. I know it doesn’t look like a parlor, but what the hell else are you supposed to call it?”
Evan grinned despite himself. “A living room,” he said, flipping his hat between skilled fingers.
“Don’t do much living in there,” she replied and left to get the water. He watched her walk away, noting that, yes, she did have dirt on her feet—rich, black soil.
He ambled into the living room—her parlor—and the mental tirade that Verina’s peculiar presence had muffled burst forth.
Hide around the corner, you fool! Surprise her! It’s your best chance. She won’t even have an opportunity to scream.
Not that it would have mattered, he thought. No husband. And her closest neighbors were the Welkins, and they were five miles up Leeds Road.
You have a job to do.
Yes, he did, but what did it matter if he waited to have a glass of water? His throat was awfully parched. Besides, if he engaged Ms. Verina Magus
Miss, she’s a ‘miss’
in some casual conversation it might make completing the job that much easier. Everyone raises their guard while in the company of strangers, whether they realize it or not, but a few moments of idle chatter could go a long way to defusing such defenses. He would wait. Yes, he was certain that was the right decision.
The parlor was spacious compared to the hall. A statue dominated the wooden cabinet: a woman, heavy-breasted and wide-hipped, seated casually atop a stone with her hands poised at her sides, palms up. Her hair hung about her in long ringlets, and the expression on her face was one of sage amusement—much like Verina’s. Flowers had been strewn near the statue’s base—pink roses and lavender and tulips—tincturing the sweet, earthen smell of the room with a softer perfume. Evan studied the cabinet: a heavy body, delicate, twining ivy carved into the panels in bas-relief, and topped with a thick slab that displayed the fine grain. Metal knobs that he assumed to be brass were fashioned into the double cabinet doors directly below the statue. Glancing quickly over his shoulder to ensure Verina wasn’t coming back just yet, Evan pulled the doors open, wincing at the quiet squeak from the hinges, and peered inside. Here was another statue. This one a man, or so Evan thought. The body was certainly male, with the wide shoulders, narrow hips, and broad, rounded chest, but the head had been carved to resemble something like a buck, with large antlers and dark, almost onyx eyes.
He heard Verina returning and snicked the cabinet shut as quietly as he could. He took a step back and pretended to be admiring the statue of the woman.
“Do you like art, Bill?” Verina asked, coming toward him and holding out a tumbler filled with a brownish liquid that certainly was not water.
“Not particularly,” he admitted. “I appreciate when people make pretty things, sure, but I don’t really see the practicality in it.”
Verina clucked her tongue appraisingly. “A practical man. Practical men can be dangerous.”
Evan tucked his arms behind his back, intending to look offended. “That so?”
“Sure. How many practical men have started wars for what they believed to be practical reasons?”
Evan blinked. He had no answer to that. Verina offered him the tumbler. “I think you might have a burst pipe,” he said, nodding to the amber liquid. “That water you got there doesn’t look safe.”
“Oh, naughty me. I guess I completely forgot that you asked for water instead of whiskey.” She had a second tumbler in her other hand, filled to the brim, and now she drained it at a single draught, her smile never faltering. “But do you know what one of my favorite clichés is, Bill?”
Evan shook his head, smirking outwardly, struggling not to look too long into her eyes.
“When in Rome,” she said, “do as the Romans do.” She held out the glass.
Evan hesitated. And then he took it. Verina smiled at him, a smile both insistent and patient, waiting for him to make a choice. She stepped away, toward the cabinet with its feminine idol, and boosted herself onto the lip of the table top, crossing her legs fluidly, displaying a quick flash of tanned thigh as the skirt fabric swished.
“What’ll it be?” she asked, her eyes intent on him—one honeyed and the other a glossier yellow.
Evan downed the glass. Verina clapped and chortled, then leaped from the cabinet and twirled gracefully, sending her hem into a dizzying spiral.
And for him that burning liquid charging down his throat to his guts had a sound: the heavy clap of a door slamming shut forever, but on this side there was Verina.
And she was dancing.