Elaine Kostas was intent on pressing the perfect crease down the length of her domestic’s uniform trousers, when an explosion rocked all ninety-five rooms of the Kastenmeier manor house. A couple of books tumbled down from a shelf as the lights flickered. Rattling windows preceded the impending calm, which echoed through the room like hushed whispers against a hollow and most unforgiving heart. The shrill blaring of smoke detectors only added to the onslaught of anxious uncertainty. After unplugging the iron, Elaine went over to the chamber door and opened it, fearful even to peer out into the hallway. Cameron Dmytryk stepped from the men’s quarters at about the same time.
“What in the world was that?” Elaine asked as he pulled a white tee shirt on over his head and then coaxed the cotton cloth down with his hands.
“Somebody has finally done the boss in,” he said, his deep voice surprisingly tranquil. Afterward, he tried to reassure her with a smile as he added, “Don’t worry. It’s probably just the furnace.” As Cameron trotted off toward the commotion, he had to step around Tasia McAvoy as she came rushing up the stairs.
“What in God’s name is going on?” Elaine asked her. “Did the furnace blow? Please don’t tell me it was Silas. Lord knows he’s much too sick to be working on any science experiments at this late hour.”
Tasia stopped at the door, her chest rising and receding as if she’d just run from one end of the forty-five thousand square-foot lodging to the other. As she stared up at the coves in the ceiling, a red, swollen spot on her cheek stood out against her pearly skin. Curiously, the blonde hair on her head resembled a lion’s mane, but the effect only seemed to enhance her unabated good looks. In a breathless voice, she said, “Carl’s been hurt.”
“Oh, my God! What happened to him?”
Tasia entered the servants’ quarters and then grabbed a suitcase from the closet. She went to her dresser, threw open the top drawer, and then started packing some of her clothes. White gauze was still wrapped tight around her left wrist, a reminder of days not so long ago that had been just as disturbing as this one. Despite a nasty scar from the base of her right thumb to the middle half of her lower arm, she favored her right hand; the left had been injured beyond repair.
“Where are you going?” Elaine asked her.
“I’m gettin’ the hell outta here.” Tasia paused, turning around with a black satin chemise in her hand. “Carl’s dyin’ and I’ll be damned if I’m gonna be here when the police come a-calling,” she said, her light blue eyes slicing the bare-bulb lighting like a razor blade. After putting the undergarment inside the suitcase, she then picked up several blouses. She sniffled, but there were no sign of tears.
“Have you called for an ambulance?”
Instead of answering, Tasia just rubbed her wet nose and kept on packing.
“Does Mrs. Kastenmeier know what’s going on?”
“Lo-o-ois?” Tasia said, emphasizing that long ‘o’ with an easy, east Texas drawl. The southern inflection in her speech could best be heard whenever she was agitated, excited or upset. “This house is her whole life, Elaine. She always knows what’s goin’ on in here. Well, she isn’t the only one. That damn thread’s not sittin’ right with somebody, but even you know that much.” Tasia grabbed a beige overnight bag hanging from one of the bedposts and then concentrated on collecting some of her things from the top of the bureau. “A speedball is exactly what I need right now.” She paused. “And I’m quite sure Carl could use one, too.”
Off in the family room, the long-case clock started chiming three quarters of a verse from taps. Reconstructing the chime mechanism had been Silas’s idea: such a fertile mind for a boy of only seven. Too bad he’d fallen so ill, and now his father was dead or close to it. The news would devastate him.
Elaine watched as Tasia worked; she was wearing a short, red dress and maroon lipstick. The white wall gave her foreground image an almost angelic glow, but Tasia was no angel. She was a beautiful girl with a passion for make-up, especially mascara. Perhaps it was her high voice and her svelte, size-two figure which made her seem much younger than nineteen. Or perhaps it was her passivity, allowing others to take advantage of her almost daily. The illusion of youth seemed to be the only thing in her life over which she had any control.
As Tasia stuffed more clothes inside of a suitcase, her black beeper rested beside it; if the boss were dying, she sure wouldn’t have a need for that anymore. By now, the gauze around her left wrist was streaked with blood. While holding a purse open, She used her left arm to sweep the cosmetics resting on her nightstand into it. She flinched, perhaps reminding herself that the wrist was still in no condition to be taken so lightly. As she cradled her left arm with a right one also marred by multiple hesitation marks, she watched a maroon lipstick tube teeter on the edge of the stand and then fall to the floor, barely making a sound against the coral and gray carpeting.
“I’m going downstairs,” Elaine said.
Tasia looked up as if she’d just been slapped in the face. Funny, but for a fleeting moment she actually looked her age.