The Salamander Conspiracy

By Donald All Rights Reserved ©

Scifi / Thriller

Chapter 19

Agreeing to meet Cheryl and Troy at the Waffle House, Knox and Levinthia climbed into her van and pulled out of the Loomises’ driveway, following Cheryl and Troy’s car. Knox wasn’t surprised when Troy slowed down as they drove past Cheryl’s house. He slowed down as he passed his childhood home. He tried to imagine what it would feel like to move back after eighteen years. It was a small home, but plenty big enough for two people or even three. If they put skylights in the roof, Levinthia could have the whole upstairs for her studio.

Then he caught himself. He wouldn’t qualify for a loan. Maybe he could spend two or three more years in Atlanta working nights in some of the jazz bars. He’d never really tried playing jazz before, but he was pretty sure his new talent would help him make the adjustment. Given the opportunity, he hoped Levinthia would give him instructions on coping with the art world.

“I’m willing to move back to my old home, but I can’t afford a mortgage.” Knox glanced over at Levinthia. “I plan to use my new musical talent to save up for the move, but even with generous tips from the nightclub audiences, I won’t be able to afford a down payment for another three to five years.”

Levinthia frowned and scratched her injured arm. “That won’t do. Lucy wants to implement her plan much sooner than that.”

“Are you going to tell us what Lucy really is?”

“Preston already told you. We don’t know what Lucy is. Lucy doesn’t know what she is.” Levinthia rested her hand on Knox’s shoulder. “She’s a wonderful mystery.”

“I think you might have to provide Troy and Cheryl with more information than that. They have to give up living in a mansion to move back to the old neighborhood.”

Frowning even more deeply, Levinthia clicked her tongue. “Yeah, I don’t look forward to explaining why Lucy had to burn down their mansion.”

“I thought the terrorists did that.” Knox felt his scalp prickle.

“No, that was Lucy.”

Confused, Knox almost missed the entrance to the Waffle House where he saw Troy and Cheryl climbing out of their Mercedes. He’d spent most of his time over the last few days, when he wasn’t talking to the ATF agents or to his insurance company, studying Levinthia’s paintings in her apartment. They were completely unlike anything he’d ever seen. Completely unlike anything she’d done when they were married. He’d also called or emailed his clients, telling them he might not be able to refresh their art this month. Most of the office managers he’d contacted wanted to cooperate. The story of his captivity had made the news.

Replacing all the reproductions in his truck would take some time. First of all, he’d have to wait for the insurance money to come through. He’d been lucky when he first started his art reproduction rental service. Several of the furniture stores he’d been selling to, when they went out of business, had large stocks of art reproductions in their inventory. One store owner actually told Knox if he’d get them out of the store, he could have them. Practically all of the owners were so concerned with getting rid of their furniture that they didn’t have time to worry about the “decorations” they sold. Knox knew he wouldn’t be so lucky this time around. He’d have to shop online.

As he pulled into a parking place beside Cheryl’s car, he asked Levinthia, “Do you need an assistant in your antiques business? I can provide a truck in a month or two.”

Levinthia grabbed him around the neck and pulled him against her. “You’ve decided to join us? Really?”

“I don’t know what’s going on, but you are going to explain it, aren’t you?”

“Everything—as far as I understand it.”

Knox noticed that Cheryl and Troy, who were standing by the Waffle House door, had started motioning for him and Levinthia to get out of the van. ”Are you really going to tell them that Lucy burned down their house?”

“Lucy insisted that I tell them.” Levinthia opened her door a few inches then leaned toward Knox until her cheek brushed his shoulder. “She knows people really well. Especially Troy and Cheryl. And you. And me.” Levinthia turned away for a moment to wave at Cheryl and Troy. “Lucy is a big gambler.”

“She seemed sort of fragile to be spending long nights in smoky Las Vegas casinos.” Knox looked at the dim lights from the Waffle House fluttering along the outline of Levinthia’s face. He hoped she would be spending the night with him in her condo.

Levinthia laughed. “That used to be Preston’s job at one time. But she’s gambling on us—to take her up on her offer.”

“You already have, it looks like.”

“I have.” Levinthia looked into Knox’s eyes.

For several seconds, Knox returned Levinthia’s gaze. He had no idea what was going on. But despite having been dragged around handcuffed and blindfolded in the back of his own truck, and despite having almost been shot, and despite having his truck blown into dust, he had never felt happier. Even if Lucy turned out to have tentacles and tusks, he would agree to be her neighbor.

“Me too,” he said as he got out of the van and walked around to Levinthia’s door to help her out. “Have you seen what she really looks like?” He caught Levinthia as she slid from her seat.

“She always takes her looks from her favorite paintings.” Levinthia leaned heavily against Knox’s chest. “You should see her impersonation of Chagall’s ‘The Equestrienne.’ It’s disturbing and hilarious at the same time.”

They found a booth in the Waffle House’s most isolated corner. They’d timed their visit perfectly because the respectable supper crowd had already come and gone, but it was still too early for the more nocturnal customers to be around. Even though it was early June, Cheryl felt a very pleasant chill run up her arms. As soon as she got finished with her number eight breakfast, she and Troy were going to stop by Wal-Mart and pick up a couple of pregnancy tests. She had been delighted to find out that Troy was much more interested in finding out how pregnant she thought she might be than in determining what kind of magic show the Loomises had just put on for them.

Cheryl was pretty certain that meeting Lucy Loomis had thrown Troy into a state of shock. He wasn’t even trying to process the mystery displayed for them this evening. All he wanted to talk about was if she thought she was really pregnant. If both of them hadn’t been so hungry, they’d have driven straight for the pregnancy test. On the other hand, Cheryl wondered about Lucy’s odd stipulations that they all move back to where they’d grown up and help protect her. For a moment, the chill on her arms turned unpleasant when she considered the possibility that the terrorists weren’t finished with them yet. Maybe Lucy knew of other plans.

Interrupting Cheryl’s concern, the waitress delivered their coffee. Emptying three creamers into her cup, Cheryl looked around the diner. Why had they come here? She hadn’t felt such a craving for a heavy breakfast since that day at the Suddreths’ house. With all the violence that had surrounded her and all the news coverage, Cheryl was surprised when Carl and Theresa Dula had called to set up an inspection and get her to recommend a local bank where they could apply for a loan. At first, she didn’t think she was ready to return to work, but as soon as she had talked to her favorite house inspector, life started feeling normal again. Eating in a Waffle House made her feel normal as well. Getting out of the condo and into the small house where she and Troy had started their life together—she couldn’t imagine a better plan. Starting a family.

Troy lifted his coffee cup with both hands and studied Levinthia over its rim. “So, Levinthia, are you able . . . and willing to explain what we’ve been through over the last few days?”

“A great deal of it.” Levinthia took a long drink of her coffee, then settled her elbows on the table. “Let me give you a history of Lucy Loomis. We might as well start strange and get stranger.” She glanced over at the grill. “But when our food gets here, I’m going to stop talking until I finish eating.”

“Sounds fair.” Knox could tell that Troy and Cheryl were feeling the same hunger that he and Levinthia felt. “Does Lucy do something to make us hungry for pancakes?”

“Let me tell you her story, then we’ll move to the question/answer segment.” Levinthia took another drink of coffee. “She told me that she first became aware of herself in 1736. . .”

“Wait.” Troy tapped his forehead with his fingertips. “That’d make her close to 275 years old.”

Levinthia nodded as she took another drink. “She found herself inside a cranny where part of a wall had been removed for the organ loft of the Frauenkirche in Dresden. A young apprentice to the great organ builder Gottfried Silbermann was helping him make some final adjustments to what would become one of his most famous organs, when the apprentice heard the infant Lucy gurgling under one of the great pipes. Lucy claims that the organ music had somehow pulled her parts together and then woke up her mind.”

“Sounds like someone had just abandoned their baby . . .” Cheryl felt a new sympathy for Lucy.

“But she wasn’t a baby.” Levinthia reached across the table and squeezed Cheryl’s wrist. “Lucy wants all of you to understand that she isn’t human. She told me that I had to be honest with you about that. That orange material that you assumed was Lucy’s dress—that material is Lucy. What that young apprentice found inside the corner of the organ was a small orange wad of what might have been silk—except it was making these noises, like somebody trying to talk.”

Just as Troy opened his mouth to ask another question, the waitress brought their orders stretched up the length of both her arms. Ordinarily, Knox would have found Troy’s incessant questions annoying. He’d spent too many hours of his life answering questions from men like Troy. For them, questions represented their way of finding an advantage for themselves. They weren’t really interested in coming to an understanding so much as finding loopholes for themselves. But all of the questions Troy had asked over the last couple of hours had been accompanied by a sincere anxiety. For some reason, that uneasiness made Knox like Troy. It was something they had in common.

What also helped Knox sympathize with Troy was the scent of coffee, bacon, and pancakes. Everyone in the booth seemed anxious to eat. As he buttered his pancakes and poured syrup over them, Knox felt a slight tremble in his hands. He had come up in the world, eating supper across from two of Hibriten’s most successful real estate agents while beside him sat a painter with talent he had never suspected. And here he sat, feeding pancakes and eggs to his own talent.

Looking out the window, Knox let his eyes roam up the street. About a hundred yards away was one of Hibriten’s main intersections. If they drove straight through the intersection for about twenty miles, they’d get to Blowing Rock and Levinthia’s Antiques. He wondered how that shop up in the mountains fit into Lucy’s plans. He didn’t really care as long as his part kept him close to Levinthia. Often, after a hard day of trying to decipher the decorative tastes of frazzled, frustrated office managers, Knox had wondered just how far removed he was from those guys selling Elvises and Senoritas on velvet by the side of the road. On especially hard days, he suspected that those salesmen had it better. Certainly, the guys who ran the produce stands beside the road had a better business plan. At least they could eat what they didn’t sell.

Halfway through her third cup of coffee, Levinthia pushed her plate to one side and picked up a menu from the metal holder. “Ready for dessert?”

Everyone responded with those softly explosive groans of the satiated.

Leaning forward, lowering her voice, Levinthia resumed her history of Lucy Loomis. “Not knowing what he had found, the apprentice, whose name was Kaspar Brandt, took the strange material to the house of the girl he hoped to marry one day, Dagmar Holst. At first, they thought it might be some sea creature that a workman had discarded, but after a few days passed and the material showed no signs of rotting, they decided it wasn’t a jellyfish.”

“Was it still making a noise?” Cheryl tried to detect any sign of lying on Levinthia’s face. As fantastic as the story sounded, Cheryl wanted it to be true.

“Less and less.” Levinthia returned Cheryl’s searching gaze. “When Dagmar began to suspect the thing was dying, she asked Kaspar to take it back where he found it. Neither of them could explain why the silence of a piece of orange cloth made them so sad, but Kaspar agreed with Dagmar that they needed to return it to the organ loft. He had to sneak into the church that evening because Silbermann was testing a set of the pipes. News had come that a prominent composer and organist wanted to try the new organ out as soon as it was ready. His name was Johann Sebastian Bach.”

The waitress interrupted with more coffee refills. When the waitress turned to leave, Levinthia tapped her elbow and said, “Bring me the check.”

“Don’t do that,” Troy objected.

“We should be paying for you.” Cheryl took hold of the waitress’s other elbow. She pointed at Levinthia’s sling and said to the waitress, “She got shot protecting her man.” Cheryl swept her finger toward Knox. “We can’t let that kind of hero pay for our supper.”

“Because I’m shot, you should do what I ask.” Levinthia leaned across Knox and whispered loudly to the waitress, “I tip a whole lot better than anyone else at this table.”

Nodding as she pulled out her order book, the waitress said, “The hero has spoken,” and handed the bill to Levinthia. “You can pay at the cash register.”

“Who’s going to be running your shop until you recover?” Troy eyed the piece of paper that Levinthia held in her hand.

“My friend Gail Shoun worked in my old shop here in Hibriten. She’s taking care of the Blowing Rock operation.” Levinthia caught Troy’s look and slid her hand under the table. “I’m also hoping to talk Knox into a partnership.” She gave Knox a smile.

“I’m in.” Knox thumped his elbows on the table. “That’s me jumping in.” He studied Cheryl’s and Troy’s faces. “Regardless of where Levinthia’s story takes us, I’m moving back to Hibriten. And I’d really like for you and Troy to be my . . .our neighbors.”

“Well, we happen to be in the market for a house.” Troy put his arm around Cheryl.

Cheryl gave Troy a surprised glance. As a rule, Troy didn’t care much for that phrase when talking about himself. Ordinarily, his favorite position was to be the market that other people found themselves in.

“I am so sorry about your house.” Levinthia glanced at Knox. Then turned her attention back to Troy and Cheryl.

“I’m sorry you had to be a prisoner for all that time while those terrorists got ready to burn our house.” Cheryl’s eyes got large, filling with tears. “If you ever want to talk about what they did to you and the Loomises . . .”

“Did they find out about Lucy?” Troy rested a fist against his cheek.

Obviously ignorning Troy’s question, Levinthia straightened her shoulders and took a deep breath. “I’m sorry for dragging this out. When Kaspar heard the organ, he heard another sound as well, coming from that orange material, and it seemed to be moving in his hands, fitfully, like a child coming awake. As soon as the music stopped, the material stopped. But it was murmuring now. Kaspar waited around until Silbermann played a few more notes, and again, the orange fabric vibrated. He ran back to Dagmar’s house and told her what had happened.” Levinthia paused to take a drink of coffee.

“Over the next few weeks, Kaspar and Dagmar took their foundling fabric to concerts all over Dresden. You know, in the eighteenth century, Dresden was called the Florence of the North. All kinds of artistic activity was going on. Although the young Lucy always seemed stirred by the music, what Kaspar and Dagmar realized was that if the music was too loud or too intense, she would seem to be paralyzed by it. One day, Kaspar was sent by Silbermann to the studio of Ismael Israel Mengs. Kaspar happened to be carrying Lucy with him that day. He felt better about himself and his work when he carried the orange fabric with him.

As an apprentice to an organ builder, Kaspar always had to carry his tools with him. He made a snug little chamber for Lucy in his tool box. Mengs asked Kaspar to wait while he composed an answer to the message that Silbermann had sent him. As an afterthought, the painter asked Kaspar if he could tighten a frame for one of his paintings. It was an easy enough job for a craftsman like Kaspar. While he worked, Kaspar found himself mesmerized by the painting that waited to go in the frame, the ‘Madonna di Foligno.’”

Troy held up his hand. “Levinthia, I’m not sure where this story is taking us. Does it have something to do with our house being burned down?”

Leaning back in the booth, Levinthia nodded. “I’m sorry. I am taking too long. But you have to understand, I’ve been carrying this story around for about two and a half years. And I want to make sure you understand what a rare opportunity you’re being offered.” She slid back to the edge of her seat. “But all of this odd story does lead up to your house being burned down.” Levinthia turned to look at Knox. “For some reason, Mengs had to leave his studio. On an impulse, Kaspar pulled his orange fabric out of his tool box and held it out in front of the painting. Before he could close his fingers, the fabric floated from his hands and drifted right onto the painting. Fascinated and horrified, Kaspar watched as the orange material spread itself completely over the canvas.”

Levinthia tilted her head back and tapped her lower lip with her finger. “It’s a big painting, about ten feet by six and a half feet. Once Kaspar regained his muscle control, he realized that his fabric had lost its orange color and become transparent. He could see the painting, but an occasional ripple would distort the surface. He grew frantic, knowing that Mengs would be back at any second. On the verge of losing his mind, Kaspar pressed his hands against the painting and begged, ‘Please get off the painting and let me take you home.’ To his amazement, the film pulled away from the painting, resuming its normal orange shape and floated by itself back into Kaspar’s tool box. As he carefully returned the tools he’d used to tighten the frame, he looked into the fabric’s secret hiding place and saw the face of Mengs’s Madonna smiling back at him.”

“Are you saying Lucy ate that painting?” Troy raised his hands from the table and pointed all of his fingers at Levinthia.

“I think it was less a consuming and more of a transference of the image. Kind of like what we used to do with Silly Putty, pulling images off of comic book panels. ” Knox couldn’t tell if Troy was just intensely curious or alarmed. Considering what Levinthia was planning on telling him and Cheryl at the end of this history of Lucy, Knox didn’t want Troy getting predisposed to seeing Lucy as a threat to property. Although, maybe she was.

“You’re both kind of right.” Briefly, Levinthia rested her forehead in the palms of her hands. “What Kaspar and Dagmar finally figured out was that Lucy absorbed the energy from paintings. Over the years, as Lucy developed more and more of her own thoughts, she realized that something about paintings give off an energy that we human beings don’t acknowledge and certainly can’t measure. Except many people find themselves drawn to genuinely great art. From what Lucy has told me, even not-so-great art gives off the energy that sustains her.”

“What about other art? Like music.” Knox wondered if Levinthia had brought the trumpet with her or left it at the Loomises’.

“From what Preston and Dolly have told me, it was that Silbermann organ that sparked Lucy into consciousness. But after she had evolved, she actually became more sensitive to music—almost allergic to it. Or maybe too susceptible to its particular energy. In fact, up until about twenty-three years ago, Lucy avoided organ music and orchestra music. Music from secondary sources like radio and any kind of recording, like reproductions of paintings, didn’t give off the kind of energy that Lucy craved.”

Levinthia paused to reach over and squeeze Knox’s hand. “Then one day, she heard a faint sound coming from the far corner of that field behind her house. It was a trumpet playing the ‘Indian Love Call.’ It certainly wasn’t as powerful as J.S. Bach playing the Silbermann organ, but the music carried an energy that Lucy could absorb.”

“Knox was feeding Lucy all those years he practiced outside?” Cheryl stared at him for a few seconds.

“In a sense, Lucy shared Knox’s formative years.” Levinthia took a deep breath. Clearly she was getting ready to change gears. “When Lucy absorbs energy from a painting, she absorbs all that the artist has put into that painting. In some ways, artistic energy is biographical. It’s like the picture itself is a portal into certain parts of the artist’s life. And as far as the artist might have known about his subject’s life, Lucy can experience the subject’s life.”

“So what happened to Kaspar and Dagmar?” Cheryl wondered how Lucy went about replacing her human caretakers when they got too old.

“After the destruction of Dresden in 1945, they changed their names to Preston and Dolly Loomis and moved to America—to the house where they now live.” Despite delivering this piece of information with confidence, Levinthia paused, knowing her audience probably needed a minute to absorb what she’d said.

“Preston and Dolly are Kaspar and Dagmar?” Cheryl leaned across the table almost nose to nose with Levinthia.

“Come on, Levinthia.” Troy’s voice came from deeper in his lungs than normal. “I don’t mind sitting here and letting you tell me that Lucy is some sort of creature who can live on art. I saw that she isn’t human. But people don’t live to be 276 years old.”

“To be accurate, Preston is closer to 296.” Levinthia ran her fingers through her hair and laughed. “He was twenty when he found Lucy.”

“Lucy does something to keep them alive, doesn’t she?” Now Cheryl lowered her voice and grabbed Levinthia’s wrist.

“She does.” Levinthia nodded, relieved that the conversation had moved in this direction. “It’s not anything unnatural or even supernatural. She’s able to make a person live up to his or her full potential. Most of us have these blockages, like clogged arteries, but in our minds and spirits. Lucy is able to ream out the clogs that prevent us from being fulfilled in the most important parts of who we are. Preston once said that she’s able to clear a channel to a person’s dreams.”

“So was it Preston and Dolly’s dream to live forever?” Troy had trouble keeping his voice level.

“Not really. Almost from the start, their dream was to see what Lucy is going to become. Longevity is just a side effect. Selfish dreams, according to Dolly, don’t usually lead to happiness.” Levinthia tapped her fingers slowly on the table. “Wanting to live forever is an empty dream. It’s not really a dream. It’s a fear. Fear of death. But if you have a man like Dr. Faustus who wants to know everything there is to know, then there’s a dream. If he learns everything in five years, then he’s fulfilled. He can die. In fact, he has to die because there’s another bunch of lessons to learn on the other side.”

“So if my dream is to raise a family with Troy . . .” Cheryl’s voice faded away.

“Dolly told you at her house. You’re pregnant.” Levinthia patted Cheryl’s cheek. “But your and Troy’s dream is larger than that. Both of you will find out over the next few months that your real estate skills, considerable as they already are, will increase.”

“So it’s okay if your dream is to be successful.” Troy pulled a napkin from the dispenser and twisted it.

For a moment, Levinthia watched Troy’s napkin. Then she glanced around the restaurant. “Okay. Let me just jump to the hard part.” She settled her gaze on Troy. “Success is not exactly a dream. Like longevity, it should be a side effect. Kind of like a collateral blessing. In your real estate business, you and Cheryl have done good. You’ve helped individuals and you’ve helped the community. When you benefit others by doing something you’re good at, then that’s art. Whether you’re repairing toilets or composing symphonies. People who work for the art of what they do—that’s the dream of art. Some people see making money as an art. Not a game. Not a means to an end. At your best, that’s what you and Cheryl do.”

“So can Lucy really improve on what we do?” Troy had lost some of the tension in his voice.

“Let me just tell both of you . . .” Levinthia dropped her gaze to the table, “. . . over the last few years, you were getting sidetracked, blocked from your real dream. Your house, Troy, had become a clog in your spirit. Lucy burned your house down. She told me I had to let you and Cheryl know. Don’t ask me to explain how Lucy’s mind works.”

Troy and Cheryl couldn’t speak.

Not waiting for them to recover enough to respond, Levinthia turned to Knox. “She burned your house too, Knox, but it was by accident. She had grown curious about you and your family. When she found out that you and your parents had gone away to the beach, she decided to explore your house and see what energy she could pick up.”

Knox glanced over at Troy and Cheryl. For the moment, he didn’t know what to say. It was one thing to work for a benign alien creature, but seeing the shock on Troy’s and Cheryl’s faces brought back his memories of trying to make sense out of what was supposed to be a random tragedy. But as Knox studied Troy’s face, he was surprised to observe that his features actually softened—not into a smile, or even a look of resignation. It was something like a hesitant acceptance.

“What about the Tahitian terrorists? Did they not really want to kill us?” Troy picked up the napkin he’d been twisting and flattened it on the table, rubbing it back into an almost square shape.

“And why all of those ghost tricks?” Cheryl pulled the napkin away from Troy.

“We’ve all had the Lucy treatment.” Levinthia straightened her back. “Cheryl, you and Troy can have as many babies as you want and you will be even better real estate artists. Just as Knox will always be the best musician he has the potential to be. You don’t have to cooperate with Lucy. If you tell her and Preston and Dolly that you don’t want to be part of the family, and that’s what she’s really offering, then you won’t be bothered by her again. Troy, you and Cheryl can raise your family over at Cedar Run. Life will still be good for you—provided you don’t confuse your art with your acquisitions. But Lucy also wanted to demonstrate the lengths she can go to when she has to protect her own family. Please don’t think we’re threatening you. Both fires were very contrary to her nature—threatening to her own existence. The sort of destruction you’ve witnessed—and some of the delusions—required a dangerous drain on Lucy’s energy. She’s still trying to recover.” Levinthia wiped at the corner of her eyes.

“How did she burn my house by accident?” Knox scooted closer to Levinthia.

“After Lucy reached a certain stage in her development, she had to spend more and more time in her pressure chamber. For a long time, she never really understood why she needed the pressure chamber. At first, she thought maybe she was just homesick for the secret drawer in Kaspar’s tool box that she’d outgrown. After a certain period of time, she’d start feeling anxious, fidgety. Anyway, she figured out that being in a really tight container made her feel less jittery. Eventually, they found out that what really made her feel better was pressure. That day she visited your house, she ignored her growing anxiety and the jitterness. Then when she knew she needed to hurry back to her pressure chamber, she felt . . .” Levinthia looked at her three companions and smiled.

“Well, if you’d heard Lucy’s description of it, you’d have to conclude that all of the anxiety and discomfort flushed out in a sort of glowing orgasm. Only when she opened her eyes after the pleasure passed, she was horrified to see that she’d set fire to your dining room. She was frightened—both by the fire and by that disorienting lapse into her own transforming pleasure. All she wanted to do was get back home.”

“But she burned our house on purpose?” Cheryl started twisting the napkin she’d taken from Troy.

Now, Levinthia had to take several nervous breaths before she could answer. “Yes. She tried to figure out another way to separate you from your house. See, giving herself completely over to those flames posed a serious risk to her . . .”

“Has she caused other fires?” Troy sounded oddly matter-of-fact.

“No—and your house is the only one she intentionally wanted to destroy. So none of us really knew what would happen if she let the flames finish what they started.”

“What about that disappearance of the rubble?” Cheryl asked.

“That was Lucy being funny.” Finding herself about to laugh, Levinthia cleared her throat. “She knew the government would send investigators. She wanted to give them a mystery that would make their trip seem worthwhile.”

“But how did she do it?” Troy rubbed his temple with his fingertips.

“The same way she made Nadine’s table change. Lucy stretched herself over the lot and put on a show. When you and Cheryl were at Nadine’s house that evening, all of you were actually inside Lucy. She’d line the whole room with herself—two or three at the same time when she wanted to—and just shift the contents back and forth from Nadine’s house to Knox’s house.”

“And you want us to believe that she did all that for our own good? So we could have a family?” Cheryl wavered.

“She is very fond of us all. She wants you to like her.”

“What about the Tahitians?” Knox had already made up his mind. The only time he felt uncomfortable was when he thought Levinthia had betrayed him in the back of his truck.

“Yes, did they die in that explosion?” Cheryl was surprised by how little upset she was about her house, but she didn’t feel comfortable about people being killed just so she and Troy could have a family.

“They’re actually the product of a new talent that Lucy has developed. As I told you, she’s long been able to reproduce herself as a painting or as a person in a painting. At the time she was planning her campaign to enlist us in her family, she was going through a Gauguin phase. She’d fallen in love with his Tahitians. So when she needed her henchmen, she decided to make them Tahitian. Like I said, she has a sense of humor. But in the past, her “projections,” as she calls them, stayed more holographic than real. This time around, though, the longer Iakopo and Alofa hung around, the more substantial they became. However, the more substantial they became, the more energy they required from Lucy. Just before the truck exploded, she pulled the plug and her Tahitians disappeared. Some of her disappeared with them. It’s like she must form connections to work her tricks out in the world, and she’s never quite sure what will happen to her when those connections break.”

“Is that one of the reasons why she wants us to move back into our old neighborhood?” Knox looked deeply into Levinthia’s eyes then glanced over at Troy and Cheryl.

“Yes. Lucy knows that she takes serious chances when she extends herself out into our world. For years and years, Preston and Dolly took her to museums, but after nearly being discovered too many times, they figured out a way to bring the art to Lucy.”

“They what?” Troy tilted his head.

“I’ll give you the details later. But Lucy wants to protect her privacy, and over the last few years, she’s realized that Hibriten society has become harder to evade than it used to be. Preston and Dolly have their hands full with their art projects. Despite what remarkable human beings they have become, they’re still 296 years old and need our help.”

“What help?” Cheryl reached over and grasped Levinthia’s forearm.

“Well, from you and Troy, Lucy wants the assurance that you can keep the neighborhood from getting over developed. With you living in your parents’ house and Knox living in his parents’ house, Lucy won’t have to worry about that side of her property. But there’s still the other two sides. Right now, one side seems pretty stable, but she wants to have someone who knows real estate watching out for her.”

Troy nodded then put his arm around Cheryl. “Why doesn’t she just buy those adjoining properties?”

“She’s open to that possibility, but she wants to do it without calling attention to herself. She’s worried that if she just bought the places all at once then let them sit empty, that the wrong people might get curious.” Levinthia raised her eyebrows. “We were hoping that you and Cheryl might think of some more organic strategy to secure the borders around Lucy.”

“Oh.” Troy leaned back and contemplated the ceiling. “Some long-term development that doesn’t involve building more houses but still utilizing the land.” After a few seconds, he turned to Knox. “Something like you and me and Cheryl going into the Christmas tree farm business.”

“I’d like to be part of a Christmas tree farm myself.” Levinthia glanced around at her three companions.

“It doesn’t really have to be a Christmas tree farm, but we’ll figure something out.” Troy seemed pleased.

“Or we could plant the entire neighborhood in sugar cane and go into the molasses business.” Cheryl also perked up. “Levinthia and I could have a shop up at the corner and sell molasses and brown sugar confections.”

“What about your antiques?” Knox nudged Levinthia.

“Maybe we could sell antiques and art as well as molasses and brown sugar.” Levinthia threw Cheryl a questioning glance.

“We’d have to look into rezoning.” Cheryl nodded enthusiastically.

“So, can I tell Lucy that you’re all willing to be part of her family?” Levinthia spoke quietly, but Knox could hear the restrained happiness in her voice. “I don’t want to push you into a decision. Go sleep on it.” Levinthia reached over and patted Cheryl’s hand. “But do stop at Wal-Mart after you leave here.”

As he followed Levinthia, Troy, and Cheryl out of the Waffle House, Knox took in a deep breath of the soft June air. He had no idea what he was stepping into, but the mystery appealed to him. He’d never been part of a conspiracy before, but if he could be part of a world approved by Levinthia, a world that lived on art and brown sugar, then he wanted to join. He put his hands on Levinthia’s hips and began swaying. When she laughed and swayed with him, he sang, “There may be trouble ahead, but while there’s moonlight and music and love and romance, let’s face the music and dance.”

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