The stench of Death was unbearable. Rotting corpses turned to soup under a merciless sun. Flies fattened with abandon on a feast of filth, swarming in a frenzy of activity like peasants at the king’s banquet table. The smell of excrement from the dying, purging themselves of their last meal, should have scorched his nostrils, but he did not have time to notice.
The constant barrage of shells from the enemy made it impossible to hear what the soldier beside him was saying, if the soldier beside him roused himself to say anything at all.
Grim hopelessness lived in the trenches with the war-weary soldiers. In the No Man’s Land between the Germans and the Allies, there lay an impossible tangle of barbed wire and pitted earth. He was doomed inside this inner ring of hell.
A corpse arose from the muck, his shallow metal helmet cocked sideways on his head. Both eyeballs lay on withered cheeks, dangling and sightless, swinging from black-veined ropes like two dripping baubles with cloudy lenses in the corrupt air. Ribbons of flesh fell from the blackened palms that lifted to a godless sky. An evil grin spread across the ghastly, blue face. And then, the soldier heard the screeching voice from the jaws of Gehenna gleefully howl, “Gas! Gas! Gas!”
He awoke screaming, drenched in sweat.
The B.S.T. Leigh House sat on the edge of a large lake, dour and grand, and planted on its foundation as firmly as if it had existed there for a thousand years. The one hundred and sixty room, three-story mansion, cottages, and outbuildings were constructed in the Mediterranean style. And they would have looked more at home in Florida where new oceanfront estates were being erected faster than bacon fat pops in a hot skillet. But still, the massive house looked impressive, and smugly superior, as it sat beside the dark, azure waters of Lake Winston.
The apricot stucco façade, topped with brown terracotta roof tiles, needed only a few palm trees to complete the vision. But no well-bred palms would ever deign to survive the colder climates of New England. So, the architect artfully utilized what he had at his disposal to lend an exotic ambiance —arched windows, curved balconies, and imported fountains. All of it substituted for the absence of a tropical locale.
Somehow, he had been successful, for there was something mystical and foreign about the estate, an oddity that the original owner had found enchanting.
B.S.T. Leigh House took its name from the family who first inhabited it: Bernard, Syble, and Therese, Bernard’s step-daughter. Therese was dead and so was Bernard. The widow found no happiness in the place. It was filled with too many ghosts.
Syble sold the estate to a group of buyers, who immediately opened an exclusive sanitarium for wealthy socialites looking for a place to hideout, dry out, or ride out some storm in their lives. Mrs. Leigh boarded her private Pullman car and rode the rails south to another mansion, somewhat smaller and easier to maintain.
The sanitarium had been operating for five years. The exclusive jitter joint was jokingly called ‘Beastly House’ by both staff and patients and that was the name that stuck to it like gum to the bottom of a shoe.
Across the vast, shimmering midnight-blue waters of Lake Winston stood several newly built mansions, evidence of the nouveau riche flaunting their recently acquired wealth. The newcomers were trying mightily to rise to the status long enjoyed by the old-money families of the area. Those who had lived there for several generations scoffed at such audacious displays suddenly cropping up along their waterfront and looked down their noses at their second-class cousins, so conspicuously trying to claw their way to the top rung.
It was one thing for old money to fly in the face of the common man, but when coarse upstarts did it, the whole drama took on the look of a New Orleans madam dressed in minks, diamonds, and pearls sitting in a box seat at the opera, reeking of cheap toilet water, and hurling obscenities at the mezzo-soprano.
The year was 1920. The war was over, and it was time to enjoy life.
Dolls and dames were throwing away their corsets and finally living. Religious fanatics were proclaiming the country was going to ruin. Political fanatics were mailing bombs to the rich and powerful. Anarchists and communists were terrorizing America.
It was the Jazz Age, the post-war period, the era when women were chafing at the bit and testing their wings. Hemlines were rising. Everyone was smoking cigarettes, reefers, and opium. And nothing seemed too far out of reach.
A sleek Duesenberg breezer was parked in a clearing, near one of the paths carved out of the woods by the wagon wheels of generations past. Avery Brighton stumbled upon the convertible as she walked aimlessly through the woods.
The cloth top was down.
A young couple was necking.
The pale, blonde wisp was dressed in voile, ribbons, and lace. She looked deceptively innocent, save for the fact she was biting the earlobe of the young man in the car.
The young man had a movie star’s profile. His skin was unblemished, except for the smear of red lipstick across his cheek. His hair was a thick mop, disheveled and sparkling, and glints of sunlight filtered through the leaves and lit the scene.
His scarlet tie was haphazardly tossed over his shoulder, collar skewed and wrinkled. His jacket was rumpled. Blue Serge smiled, whispering into the washed-out blonde’s ear.
Suddenly, the blonde slapped his face with the heated violence of a woman scorned. She got out of the small roadster and stomped down the dirt path, as indignant as a prim granny warming a proud pew on a sunny morning who has just been notified she must relinquish her seat for the town drunk.
Blue Serge sat in the car, his brown eyes sparkling. He threw his head back in laughter, revealing a perfect set of gleaming, white teeth.
“I say,” Avery said, walking up to the modern chariot, “that was a nice move. She packs a wallop to be so scrawny. Did you really mean what you said? What on earth did you say to her, anyway? She was madder than an old wet hen! You suggested a little barneymugging, didn’t you? Come on. Be honest.”
The blonde, still within hearing distance, stopped in her tracks. She turned to look at Avery, standing beside the automobile.
“Crazy lunatic! How dare you speak like that about us! Easton! Do something! I will not stand by and be so crudely insulted!”
Blondie screamed her indignation at Avery, who thought the whole scene deliciously wicked. Easton, who had exited his roadster, stood by the car.
Blonde Voile looked as if she wanted to spit on both of them, her eyes flaming with rage. She grunted her disapproval, resuming her stiff, marching stride, and headed down the dirt path in the opposite direction.
The young man’s eyes held Avery’s. He looked her over, head to toe.
“You really are one of the crazies from that asylum, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” Avery said. “Nervous invalids. That’s the phrase they like to use to describe us. At least in our presence. But to be honest, most of us are merely high-strung hypochondriacs whose families have closeted us away here for what they say is ‘a little rest.’ A little rest that will probably last us the rest of our natural lives.”
“I see,” Blue Serge said.
“You see what?” Avery asked.
“Bit of a pain. Certainly an inconvenience. Embarrassment maybe. If your family has the dough, then out the door you go. Something like that, though, I’m just guessing.”
“But I bet I’m not far off,” Easton said. “You know. An unpleasantness that somebody else can handle.”
“Yes. I think that about sums it up,” Avery said, after some reflection.
“What’d you do? Commit murder or something?”
“No. Nothing that wild or insanely horrendous,” Avery said. “Just have sticky fingers. I’m a booster. A klepto. My family’s faux pas.”
“You think so? I really don’t know why I do it, but at times, I’m overwhelmed by the compulsion. Do you really find this fascinating?”
“No. I was just making conversation.”
“You’re not shocked?”
“Why should I be? So, you’re a thief. A shoplifter. So what! Probably steal just for the thrill. I dunno. Me? I like to drive fast. Father says my speeding will give him a stroke. But I like the way it makes me feel. Alive, you know. So, I’ll keep doing it until I wrap my pretty little automobile around a tree. Nobody’s perfect. You’re here at this place. You dress nice. Look like the cat’s meow. So, my guess is, you don’t steal to eat or anything like that.”
“You’re right. I could get my father to give me anything I want. All I have to do is ask.”
“I’ll bet that’s true. But you don’t ask. Why? Who knows? Probably just more fun to see if you can pocket a little bauble and get away with it.”
“You should be my doctor!”
“Nah. That job’s already taken, I’m sure. Besides, I got other plans for my life.”
“Don’t blame you one bit,” Avery said, laughing. “I wouldn’t want to be stuck here being a nursemaid to the bunch I’m hung with! Besides, as soon as Daddy cools off, I plan to plead with him to let me come back home. I’ll promise him I’ll be good. And I will be. If only for a little while.”
“Wanna butt?” Easton asked, offering her a cigarette from his solid gold cigarette case.
Avery thought he had the most gorgeous eyes.
“What,” he said, a wicked grin on his face, “don’t they let you crazies smoke?”
“Oh, they let us crazies do most anything we want,” she said.
She took the cigarette.
“Thank you,” she said, accepting a light from his already lit cigarette.
“Gaspers are bad for you,” he said, his eyes crinkling in a cheerful way.
“Isn’t just about everything,” she said.
They smoked in silence.
“I mean,” she said, “isn’t just about anything that’s really any good terribly bad for you?”
“Yes,” he said, letting the smoke burn deeply into his lungs. “I guess so. Say, aren’t you a little far from . . . home?”
“Yes, but don’t worry. There isn’t anywhere to escape to,” Avery said. “You’d need supplies to survive a trek off this estate. It’s fantastically large. As you can see, I’ve only the clothes on my back. No water. No food. I’m not planning to break out and go on a rampage.”
She smiled at her little joke.
“Mmm,” he said. “My family hates the fact that this place is here. I’m forever reminding them that we’re the tourists. The locals were here ages before we came along. They don’t buy it, though. My argument, I mean.”
“Oh, there’s really nothing to worry about,” Avery said. “Truly. Not from this loony bin, I mean. The lake is quite large and deep and very cold. Even in the summer. There are hundreds of acres on this estate. That’s why they let us roam the woods. We can walk for hours and never leave the property.”
“But what if you become lost in all this forest? I mean . . .”
“Oh, never fear,” she said. “There’s a bloodhound that will lead them right to the little lost lamb. I would be promptly escorted back home in no time.”
“Yes. Really. One of the amenities that sold my folks on this place. Tracking dogs, just like in the old days of slavery.”
“Still use them for the chain gangs, I think,” he said.
“Good comparison,” Avery said. “Chain gangs and loony-bin crazies.”
“Are you really serious?”
“No. I’m fibbing. There are no dogs. Another bad habit of mine. Anyway, I was truthful about one thing. There is nowhere to run. This place is too damn big,” Avery said.
“You want a lift back?”
“No, thanks. I’d rather walk. I treasure my time outside. It’s supposed to be therapeutic. Or so they say. Me? I just enjoy exploring. Besides, you never know what you’ll see. Or who you will run into! Ha! Ha!”
“Suit yourself. Are you sure? Alright, but don’t say that I didn’t offer,” he said, cranking the car. “By the way, thanks to Shelly, you know my name’s Easton. What’s yours?”
“Well, Avery, perhaps, if I am lucky, I’ll run into you again, soon.”
“Perhaps,” Avery said, giving Easton one of her most bewitching smiles.
He put the car into gear and sped off down the dirt path. Avery watched him, a smile still lingering on her lips.
“Easton,” she said, “perhaps, we will meet again soon.”